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          August: Osage County astonishes audiences

          Drew Scheeler

          Issue date: 4/16/10 Section: Focus
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          Tracy Letts' August: Osage County details a harrowing family reunion in Oklahoma, where subjects including, but not limited to suicide, pedophilia, incest, drug abuse, sexual harassment and alcoholism are discussed at length, Tennessee Williams-style. The play runs at Playhouse Square until April 25.
          Tracy Letts' August: Osage County details a harrowing family reunion in Oklahoma, where subjects including, but not limited to suicide, pedophilia, incest, drug abuse, sexual harassment and alcoholism are discussed at length, Tennessee Williams-style. The play runs at Playhouse Square until April 25.
          [Click to enlarge]
          Congratulations are in order for Tracy Letts, for he has done something that few playwrights have in the past 70 years. He has created a theatrical black hole. August: Osage County, Letts's sprawling masterwork of theatre now playing at Playhouse Square, radiates of unadulterated brilliance. Something suspicious happens when the lights go down at the start of Act One: a massive entity appears, you get sucked into it, three hours pass by in a matter of seconds and it becomes impossible to escape from its forces.

          Once the Weston patriarch mysteriously disappears, the rest of the family returns to the old homestead in Osage County, Oklahoma and an awkward, impromptu reunion ensues. Barbara and Bill have separated, but that's a secret, as is Ivy, who is romantically involved with her cousin. And shh, Karen's fiancé is a marijuana distributor who has his eye on a much younger woman.

          Estelle Parsons, Estelle Parsons, and Estelle Parsons play the three personalities of Violet so distinctively and effectively that the actress really should receive a triple star billing. Parsons alternates between three unique personalities: a drug-rattled instigator, a sadist trying to sober up, and a truly desperate and all- too-human woman with the finesse that such a role requires. As Barbara, Shannon Cochran provides a wonderful counterpoint to Parsons as a woman who is slowly transforming into Violet and becoming the monster that she has blamed for decades. One of the reasons the entire ensemble is so phenomenal in August is that each member of the cast is, counter-intuitively, downplaying their roles. Rather than one member of the cast dominating the entire show, as Parsons, Cochran, or Libby George could have easily done, each actor plays their role with such restraint that reality begins to seem artificial.

          Letts's play is an homage to all of those classic, American three-act plays of the past that you had to read in high school. Time passes slowly and every plot thread has a neat, satisfying conclusion. There's a reason it won a Tony and a Pulitzer; this show is a sharp reflection on excess in today's society and how it can shatter relationships. At times, the script gets uncomfortable and for some viewers it may hit too close to home. But it is during these moments when the story shows its true strength and avoids falling into the traps of melodrama. Tennessee Williams may have discussed alcoholism, but incest and pedophilia were strictly off-limits in his oeuvre.

          August: Osage County is easily the best touring show that Playhouse Square has seen so far this season and, judging by the shows yet to visit, will remain so until Next to Normal arrives next summer. To miss this show is to miss out on truly electrifying theatre.
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