When a show gets called “flat-out, no asterisks and without qualifications, the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years” by none other than the New York Times, then goes on to win both the Tony and the Pulitzer in addition to the Drama Desk, Drama League, New York Drama Critics’ Circle, and Outer Critics Circle awards, there’s nothing StageSceneLA can say to add to the excitement surrounding its arrival at San Diego’s Old Globe. But here goes:

August: Osage County is a three-story-tall contemporary classic that no lover of fine theater will want to miss. (And you can quote me.)

Let’s start with scenic designer David Zinn’s spectacular three-story-tall Oklahoma homestead, one without which it is impossible to imagine Tracy Letts’ three-act, three-generation Great Plains Gothic family drama taking place. No matter where our attention is focused by Japhy Weideman’s spectacularly complex lighting design, you can be sure that something will be happening in any number of other rooms, just as at any family reunion, not just one taking place in America’s heartland.

August: Osage County opens with alcoholic patriarch Beverly Weston (Robert Foxworth) hiring Native American Johnna Monevata (Kimberly Guerrero) as housekeeper for his drug-addicted wife Violet (Lois Markle), only to have Beverly promptly disappear from town (and backstage for the three hours separating his exit and curtain calls). The discovery of Beverly’s body several days later prompts a return to the homestead of the entire Weston clan. There’s eldest daughter Barbara (Angela Reed), who lives in Colorado with husband Bill (Joseph Adams) and teenage daughter Jean (Ronete Levenson); middle daughter Ivy (Carla Harting), the only one not to have fled the nest, but who dreams of the freedom her younger sisters have found; and youngest daughter Karen (Kelly McAndrew), now residing in Florida with fiancé Steve (Robert Maffia) who accompanies Karen back home for more fireworks than Oklahoma has seen in many a Fourth Of July.

You see Ivy is secretly dating first cousin Little Charles (Haynes Thigpen), son of Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Robin Pearson Rose) and her husband Charlie (Guy Boyd). Barbara meanwhile is estranged from Bill, who’s having an affair with a student, the ensuing family discord only one of the reasons that fourteen-year-old Jean is getting stoned as often as she can. Steve may seem to be the man of Karen’s dreams, but then again till now she hasn’t seen the looks he’s been giving nubile teen Jean. And that’s just for starters.

If all this sounds more than a tad too Days Of Our Lives, rest assured that regardless of whatever twisted plot turns August: Osage County may have in common with your favorite daytime soap, Letts’ dialog is so sharp, biting, smart, and often downright hilarious that comparisons can be no more than superficial, especially in a production directed with consummate artistry by Sam Gold (who recently staged Circle Mirror Transformation at South Coast Repertory) and performed by an acting ensemble it’s hard to imagine even the original Broadway cast bettering.

What sets the Old Globe’s August: Osage County apart from the outstanding National Tour that played the Ahmanson and was helmed by its original Steppenwolf director Anna D. Shapiro is that this production has been built from the ground up specifically for the Globe, offering fresh discoveries and delights even to those who may have seen A:OC in Chicago, New York, or on tour.

Deanna Dunagan and Amy Morton got Tony nominations for their performances as Violet and Barbara on Broadway, with Dunagan taking home the statuette, thus it’s not surprising that The Old Globe’s Markle and Reed get the two plummest roles and give the two most brilliant performances amongst and all-around brilliant cast.

Markle appears so withered and feeble in Violet’s drugged-out opening scene that the guts and gusto she demonstrates in a later, less-altered state makes all the stronger impression, no more so than in a bravura Act Two monolog which leaves the audience gasping for breath amidst cheers. Reed’s Barbara starts out strong and just keeps getting stronger, giving Markle’s Violet a run for her money and providing the eldest daughter with more layers and tang than a club sandwich served with mustard and horseradish. When mother and daughter get into a knock-down, drag-out shouting match, watch out.

As Mattie Fae, the divine Rose gets the role that won Rondi Reed the New York production’s second acting Tony, and the gifted stage vet disappears so completely into Aunt Mattie’s feisty, no-nonsense skin that it’s a sure bet no one will recognize this master artist when she exits the theater.

Foxworth makes such a strong impression as the tormented Beverly that his character casts a shadow long after his early departure. (Interestingly, Foxworth played Charlie on Broadway.) Harting (Becky in North Coast Rep’s Becky’s New Car) is marvelous and heartbreaking as Ivy, the trapped middle sister longing for freedom, even if it means going against God and nature. McAndrew (of last season’s Alive And Well) is a powerhouse as Karen, giving us a woman willing to overlook any failure in her man if it means staying as far from Oklahoma as possible. As Barbara’s estranged husband Bill, Adams reveals all the character’s conflicts and complexities. Levenson is terrific as the teenaged Jean, whose Lolita-like qualities cause Steve (a dynamic Maffia) to lose his head in a great comic relief scene which has the buff actor doing pushups in a very compromising position. Boyd (who followed Foxworth as Charlie for seven months on Broadway) and Thigpen are memorable as Mattie Fae’s henpecked husband and his screw-up of a son, aka Little Charles. Guerrero makes the very most of the nearly dialog-free role of the ever-present Johnna (a role she originated at Steppenwolf, on Broadway, in London, and in Sydney, Australia) and gets bonus points for more wordless housekeeping business than any actress has probably ever had to master. Todd Cerveris completes the cast effectively in the small but pivotal role of Sheriff Deon.

Scenic designer Zinn’s three-story Weston home is so epic and detailed that it ought to be a shoo-in for San Diego’s Best Set of 2011. Weideman’s lighting design too is about as dazzling as they come, requiring different lighting for each and every room at each and every second of August: Osage County’s three hour-long acts. Fitz Patton’s sound design adds power and zip to an already electric production. Costumes by Clint Ramos reflect each character’s personality to a T. Jan Gist’s dialect coaching insures what seem to be pitch-perfect Oklahoma twangs from the entire cast. Diana Moser is stage manager.

If ever there was a Old Globe production that merited a day or overnight trip from Los Angeles to San Diego, August: Osage County is that production. This is must-see theater for anyone who missed the Pulitzer Prize-winner at the Ahmanson. It is equally must-see for anyone who marveled at the brilliance of the National Tour, if only to experience Letts’ greatest play freshly helmed by a superb young director and starring an absolutely stupendous cast, most of whom are getting their first crack at these crackerjack roles.

May: San Diego County + August: Osage County = The wildest and most thrilling theatrical ride you’re likely to have all year.

Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.–Steven Stanley
May 14, 2011
Photos: Henry DiRocco

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