It’s hard to imagine a more gorgeous setting for Tracy Letts’ sprawling August: Osage County than under the Topanga stars at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, just one reason why the Oklahoma family saga’s return to L.A. (for the first time since A:OC’s Broadway National Tour played the Ahmanson back in 2009) makes for news worth shouting to the heavens and beyond.
Logistically speaking, no 99-seat theater could possibly do full justice to a play whose three-story Broadway set let us observe virtually every room simultaneously … and no mid-to-large-sized house could likely afford such an epic scenic design let alone a cast of eleven.
Theatricum Botanicum’s year-round outdoors set may not give us all three floors of the Weston family’s Pawhuska, OK manse, but by substituting breadth for height, it allows us to see half-dozen or so rooms at once … and with an expansiveness that fits the wide-open Oklahoma spaces to perfection.
Letts’ play (winner of both the Tony and the Pulitzer in addition to the Drama Desk, Drama League, New York Drama Critics’ Circle, and Outer Critics Circle awards) starts off small, with alcoholic patriarch Beverly Weston (Tim Halligan) hiring Native American Johnna Monevata (Jeanette Godoy) as housekeeper for his drug-addicted wife Violet (Ellen Geer) and then promptly disappearing from town.
Things get a good deal bigger when, several days later, the discovery of Beverly’s drowned body prompts a return to the homestead of the entire Weston clan.
There’s eldest daughter Barbara (Susan Angelo), living in Colorado with husband Bill (Aaron Hendry) and teenage daughter Jean (Judy Durkin); middle daughter Ivy (Abby Craden), the only one not to have fled the nest, but who dreams of the freedom her younger sisters have found; and youngest daughter Karen (Willow Geer), now residing in Florida with fiancé Steve (Mark Lewis), who accompanies Karen back home for more fireworks than Oklahoma has seen in many a Fourth Of July.
Ivy is secretly dating first cousin Little Charles (Sam Trueman), son of Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Melora Marshall) and her husband Charlie (Alan Blumenfeld). Barbara meanwhile is estranged from Bill, who’s having an affair with a student, the ensuing family discord just one of the reasons the couple’s fourteen-year-old daughter is getting stoned as often as she can. Steve may seem to be the man of Karen’s dreams, but she hasn’t seen the looks he’s been giving her nubile teen niece.
If all this sounds more than a tad 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.
MaryJo DuPrey directs at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum with a brilliance, ingenuity and flair that is matched by the entire Botanicum cast. (In a case of art imitating life, Ellen Geer and Melora Marshall are sisters, Willow is Ellen’s daughter, and Abby Craden is her daughter-in-law.)
Geer matriarch Ellen’s performance as Violet rivals last summer’s raging Queen Lear in power and depth, letting the daughter of Botanicum Founder Will Geer transition from the withered, feeble, drugged-out septuagenarian of the play’s opening scene to the guts and gusto we see in Vi’s later, less-altered state, and never more so than in a bravura Act Two monolog that earns the venerable stage vet deserved applause.
As eldest daughter Barbara, the always superb Angelo gives us a long-dormant volcano just waiting to erupt, and when mother and daughter get into a knock-down, drag-out shouting match, the audience is left gasping for breath amidst cheers.
Craden gives her most revelatory performance to date as the trapped middle sister longing for freedom (even if it means going against God and nature), eschewing the glamour, sultriness, and sass that have made her a favorite at both Theatricum Botanicum and A Noise Within by vanishing so entirely into Ivy’s drab, drawn skin that you might not even realize it’s Craden onstage if you haven’t glanced at the program.
Completing the quintet of female star turns, the chameleon-like Marshall makes the feisty, no-nonsense Mattie Fae fabulously her own.
In supporting roles, a dynamic Hendry reveals all of Barbara’s estranged husband Bill’s conflicts and complexities, Durkin is terrific as the teenaged Jean, whose Lolita-like qualities cause Steve (a dynamic Lewis) to lose his head, and the always memorable Blumenfeld and Botanicum newcomer Trueman make their own quiet-but-commanding impressions as Mattie Fae’s henpecked husband and his screw-up of a son, aka Little Charles. (Native Brit Trueman gets bonus points for his spot-on American accent.)
As brought to life by a quietly heartbreaking Halligan, the tormented Beverly casts a shadow long after his early departure, Godoy makes the very most of the nearly dialog-free role of the ever-present Johnna, and Paul Stroili completes the cast effectively in the small but pivotal role of Sheriff Deon.
An ingeniously arranged houseful of furniture and Nicholas Acciani’s multitude of properties convert the Botanicum stage into the Westons’ multi-roomed Oklahoma home, superbly lit by Zach Moore. Ian Flanders’ sound design adds pizzazz, while costumes by Val Miller tell us just what we want to know about each character even before he or she speaks.
Additional program credits are shared by Christine Breihan (assistant director), Jennifer Burkhardt (lighting design assistant), Beth Glasner (wardrobe supervisor), and Daisy Navarro (production assistant), and Carmen Flood (understudy). Elna Kordijan is stage manager and Karen Osborne is assistant stage manager.
With just one intermission, this August: Osage County runs fifteen minutes shorter than the Broadway original, which means that it still clocks in at a meaty three-and-a-quarter hours. But fear not, with meat as scrumptious as the Oklahoma barbecue Tracy Letts has cooked up, looking at your watch will be the last thing on your mind.
The Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga.
July 5, 2015
Photos: Miriam Geer