Thursday 19 April 2018

Osage is like no family you'd ever want to meet -- except on stage
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : High camp. Burlesque. Potboiler. These are words to bear in mind before going to see playwright Tracy Letts' soap opera August : Osage County at the White Rock Players Club.
A more impaired and dysfunctional American family saga would be hard to conjure. Particularly so because the matron, mom Violet Weston, is metaphorically like Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs -- her 6 1/2 decades in life have made her into a take-no-prisoners bitter vicious thrasher and slayer whose vengeance against her brood knows no bounds.

The clever but uncredited White Rock Players Club program banner for this gothic tragicomedy
depicts a family whose home and lives are utterly uprooted and buried in their own well-deserved grave.
But why not have some fun along the way? In the immortal words of critic Clive Barnes a decade back : "A family that shouts, rants, throws plates, smokes dope and drops into unwitting incest can't be all bad...". This is Mamet meets Albee meets Roseanne -- a troubled bunch of misfits as if on loan from a deranged vaudeville troupe that's has wandered unwittingly into Pawhuska, OK.

How it all launches for better or for worse : Loaded with foreshadowing, Osage starts with a charming chat between the Dad guy, a university prof and once-upon-a-time poet named Beverly. He's interviewing Johnna, a local Cheyenne who he wants to bring on as housekeeper -- or possibly more as peacekeeper between himself and Violet. "My wife takes pills and I drink. That's the bargain we've struck of the bargains, just one paragraph of our marriage contract...cruel covenant." Admitting such frailties to a youthful stranger he's known but for five minutes foretells there will be melodrama ahead.

If there were any doubt it is dispelled within seconds when Violet stumbles into the scene, addled and rattled and juiced. When Bev suggests "Why don't you go back to bed, sweetheart?" she spits back : "Why don't you go fuck a fucking sow's ass?" Seconds later Bev tells Johnna, without a hint of irony, that if she comes to work for them "I doubt you'll be able to maintain any sort of healthy routine." Bev hires her with a final ironic riff at T.S. Eliot, observing "My last refuge, my books, simple pleasures, like finding wild onions by the side of a road, or requited love." With that charming and touching bit, exit Bev, stage left. Forever. And that's when the play truly begins.

What the show brings to the stage : Turns out Violet has cancer of the mouth along with myriad other malaises for which she pops packs of pills incessantly, perpetually. Between the countless cigarettes she still consumes. When Bev hasn't returned home in a handful of days, the family descends. 

Unmarried middle daughter Ivy, 44, arrives first : she's hung around Pawhuska looking after Mom and Dad's needs for years. Mom zeroes in on her : "You always look like such a schlub. Your shoulders are slumped and your hair's all straight and you don't wear makeup. You look like a lesbian." Her life-choice partner, held secret nearly all script long, will turn out to be anything but gay.

Vi's sister Mattie Fae, eight years her junior, arrives next with her nice nebbish hubby Charlie. Their doofus layabout kid, 37, is still called Little Charles. He lives with them at home 90 minutes away but they're fretful he can't be relied upon to even let the dogs out and fetch them back successfully. 

Eldest daughter Barbara and philandering husband Bill plane in from Boulder, CO with 14-year-old Jean who is eagerly in search of herself. She likes pot. Youngest of the three sisters Karen comes up from Florida with her 50-year-old shady businessman boyfriend Steve. He's a pedophile, thrice-married. 

So. No question Mr. Letts is reaching out for Tennessee Williams' New Orleans in all this. Also no question his theatrical grasp -- entertaining and canny and sly, but more superficial -- is quite a bit closer to David Jacobs' Dallas.

Past commentary on this show : When it first hit the NYC stage and took the 2008 Tony for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Osage was cited as a "new American classic" by many. But not all. "Contrived", declared Hilton Als of The New Yorker, to which playwright Tracy Letts responded in an interview with Kelly Nestruck of the Globe and Mail : "Fuck Hilton Als...he's an asshole," sounding word-for-word like his protagonist Vi Weston.

And while I may side toward the Als camp in this -- he is one of my favourite S. of 49 reviewers -- fact is the White Rock Players Club production directed by Ryan Mooney provides a show that presents with zing and pathos and sardonic humour all three. (Oh yes, another "three" or two in the mix : with its three acts and two intermissions, it runs three hours-fifteen JSYK.)

This is a show that by rights should toggle in repertory with the Mom's The Word series that Vancouver's ACT produces. Not only because it is 100% the exact opposite in tone and temper and cadence, but it features seven women all with strong and precisely-aimed stage presence -- gothic or no -- as crafted by the clever Mr. Letts. To wit his mother Billie, an author, quipped in the Dallas Observer in 2003 : "I try to be upbeat and funny. Everybody in Tracy's stories gets naked or dead."

Fresnels on the production : The Robin Maggs / Andrea Olund set design is one of the best I've ever witnessed on the WRPC stage. It grabs the eye from the get-go. Finding a way to intersect thirteen actors on three floors of an OK farmhouse -- including eleven of them cluttered around the squidgy funeral wake dinner table -- takes some imagination. Brava! stuff here indeed. 

Diane Grant Booth's costumes suited each character with appropriate variety and idiosyncrasy from frumpy to dumpy to sexy to same old plain old. Lighting by Richard Smith isolated the various individual scene locations with imagination, while Gord Mantle's soundscape -- particularly the scratchy Clapton vinyl -- lent a further okie vibe to all the family shenanigans on show. 

Acting pin-spots : In Osage the script "belongs" to mother mayhem, matriarch Violet Weston (Cindy Peterson). In the program she admits she has lusted after this role from her first reading the play some years back. And deliver the goods she does indeed. From droll to drugged to been-there-done-that stoic cynicism, she is every kid's squiggly nightmare of their mom. 

Second protagonist in the piece is eldest daughter Barbara (Alaina Holland). She belts out pain and venom and teen-mom irritability with equal measure. Both long-suffering middle sister Ivy (Katherine Morris) and largely estranged, self-absorbed naif youngest sister Karen (Samantha Silver) are robust in their portrayals -- all three evince the kind of "betrayal syndrome" only siblings are capable of. Special mention to Alina Quarin as the 14-year-old daughter Jean : nice riffs as another challenging teen trying to stake her claim among the pusillanimous men in her family vis-a-vis the women who are to a person wounded warriors.

Solid performances across the piece by this eager ensemble of local talent. To keep a full-house of mostly seniors engaged with laughter and groans and tears for 3+ hours of a Wednesday night is no small feat indeed.

Who gonna like : The preceding descriptors should tell the tale. American gothic melodrama with lots of verbal violence, eff-words, a nifty synonym checklist for Mom's vagina -- a good start there to see whether you're a Who gonna for this kind of play or not. [Me Yes! my wife n.s.m.]

The Ryan Mooney direction of the actors in their talking-over-one-another group scenes was superb, one of the best examples I've witnessed on Vancouver boards. For their part, playwright Letts and Stephen Karam (see BLR March 29, 2018 review of ACT's The Humans) are often mentioned in the same breath as current USA dramatic wunderkind

This is bitey, chewy stuff, but dark dark dark. How else could mention of their Dad who apparently loved Mom -- "But then committed suicide!" -- bring forth gales of laughter from the crowd. No, Tennessee Williams this decidedly ain't. But for a witty and gritty get-under-your-skin look at Family Dysfunction Writ Large, a lot to entice and excite the wondering and willing here.

Particulars : Written by Tracy Letts.  At the White Rock Players Club Coast Capital Playhouse (1532 Johnston Road, White Rock.)  On until April 28, 2018.  Schedules & ticket information from WRPC or box office at 604.536.7535.  Run-time 3 hours 15 minutes minutes including x2 15-minute intermissions.

Production crew : Producer Colleen McGoff-Dean.  Director Ryan Mooney.  Set Designers Andrea Olund / Robin Maggs.  Costume Designer Diane Grant Booth.  Lighting Designer Richard Smith.  Sound Designer Gord Mantle.  Assistant Producer Jackie Grant. Assistant Set Decorator Laura McKenzie.  Stage Manager Kathleen Allisen.  Prop Maven Naomi Mitchell.

Performers : Paul Cowhig (Sheriff Deon Gilbeau). Alaina Holland (Barbara Fordham). Cassidy Hryckiw (Johnna Monavata).  Pat McDermott (Charlie Aiken).  Katherine Morris (Ivy Weston).  Chris O'Connor (Steve Heidebrecht).  Fred Partridge (Beverly Weston). Cindy Peterson (Violet Weston).  Alina Quarin (Jean Fordham). Heather-Jane Robertson (Mattie Fae Aiken).  Samantha Silver (Karen Weston).  Cale Wald (Little Charles Weston).  Andrew Wood (Bill Fordham).

Addendum #1 : Reference is made in the play to Southern novelist Carson McCullers whose coming-of-age novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) and its 1951 follow-up The Ballad of the Sad Cafe were de rigeur reading for high schoolers and young college preppies back in the day. And of course To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee particularly after it was made into a black-&-white movie, lit.-&-fig., in 1962 starring Gregory Peck as the steely-eyed but compassionate lawyer Atticus Finch.

On Page 7 of the Dramatists Play Service, Inc. 2009 publication of Tracy Letts' script for August : Osage County, Letts included a lengthy squib from yet another southern writer, Robert Penn Warren of Kentucky -- he the author of my all-time favourite existential poem "Waiting". This from his most famous novel that won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1947,  All the King's Men :

The child comes home and the parent puts the hooks in him. The old man, or the woman, as the case may be, hasn't got anything to say to the child. All he wants is to have that child sit in a chair for a couple of hours and then go off to bed under the same roof. It's not love. I am not saying that there is not such a thing as love. I am merely pointing to something which is different from love but which sometimes goes by the name of love. It may well be that without this thing which I am talking about there would not be any love. But this thing in itself is not love. It is just something in the blood. It is a kind of blood greed, and it is the fate of a man. It is the thing which man has which distinguishes him from the happy brute creation. When you get born your father and mother lost something out of themselves, and they are going to use a hame trying to get it back, and you are it. They know they can't get it all back but they will get as big a chunk out of you as they can. And the good old family reunion, with picnic dinner under the maples, is very much like diving into the octopus tank at the aquarium. 

And finally, one of my all-time favourite quotations from yet another Southern novelist, Alabaman Walker Percy. His 1971 piece Love In The Ruins is a science fiction morality piece set in USA's dystopian future. Percy writes :

What must be discharged is the intolerable tenderness of the past : the past that is gone and grieved over and never made sense of.

As I watched the final scene of Osage last night when eldest daughter Barbara abandons her mother Violet for good and Violet seeks solace from Johnna Monevata (English : "Youngbird") -- the Cheyenne cook and family caregiver -- Percy's quote jumped instantly into mind and I found myself shedding some tears that Letts and the WRPC cast had helped pend up in me over the course of the night.

Addendum #2 :  Before attending the WRPC performance, I was chatting with a friend about Vancouver theatre. I mentioned that one goofy but repeated frustration I find is in how actors hereabouts swear on stage. Almost always Wrongly! I said to him. As in saying "What is your fucking problem?" to a sibling, rather than the way the language is actually used, which is "What is your fucking problem?" 

The only time the word fucking was emphasized rather than the noun after it -- which is how we speak -- was Alaina Holland exclaiming about Violet's "fucking pills". That was right. In that instant, the emphasis on "fucking" was right. 

The rest of the time each and every of the cast for the balance of the night used the adjective "fucking" as the throw-away word it is, emphasizing instead the following noun or adjective or verb, as in "Are you fucking kidding me?" 

Touche! Ryan Mooney and cast. My faith that good directing and good actors can pull this little bit of dictional accuracy off now has a base-point that I can refer folks to down the road. Thanks!


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