Beverly Weston, aging poet and professor, sits among overstuffed bookshelves and reflects on the sum of his life: a marriage bound by whiskey and pills, a career lost in the shadows of tortured art. He quotes T.S. Eliot—“life is very long”—to his newly hired, live-in housekeeper, a young Cheyenne woman named Johnna, and admits it could be worse. “The place isn’t in such bad shape, not yet,” he says. “I’ve done all right. I’ve managed. And just last night, I burned an awful lot of…debris.”
When Bev goes missing a few weeks later, his drug-addled wife, Violet, calls their children—three adult daughters: Ivy, Barbara, and Karen—to bring husbands and boyfriends back to Oklahoma and comfort her as she waits. In rooms so warm pet birds can’t survive, Violet offers hilariously backhanded compliments before tearing her offspring apart. She’s a matriarch who was born into physical violence and has grown as tough as the dust-covered Plains, and her cruelty is the star around which family revolves until Daddy comes home or they all kill each other, whichever pseudo-redemption comes first.
Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County is a massive, muscular show, and Live Arts’ production (through June 8) serves it on the thin line between comedy and bloodbath. It’s no small feat to manage three acts in three hours (that somehow only feel like two), and the cast, crew, and Artistic Director Julie Hamberg deserve applause for bringing this kind of theater to Charlottesville.
The Weston house, which fills the entirety of the Live Arts’ Gibson (formerly DownStage) Theater, is a marvel of set design. Johnna’s attic bedroom brushes the highest point in the room, suspended above a second-floor hallway and an office, kitchen, and split-story living room shrouded with weariness. A white wall wears a patch of yellow from years of sweaty handprints; slouched shelves and loaded trash cans speak volumes of neglect. Even the two flights of stairs that Violet descends in her stumbling, downer-fueled highs appear solid as a rock. It’s this quality of execution—from set and sound and lighting design to the show’s many flawless performances—that allows August to elevate local, volunteer theater to a distinctly professional level. You could pay a premium to see the show elsewhere, but Live Arts hits as hard as Broadway. (Trust me. I saw it there, too.)
As Beverly Weston, Bill Rough is magnetic. To misquote producer and dramaturg Victoria Brown, his tempered presence and muttered poetry permeate the show like cigarette smoke. In his absence, matriarch Violet (Kate Monaghan) and middle daughter Barbara (Boomie Pedersen), ignite the stage and each other. Monaghan is equal parts tender and cruel, doddering when drugged and vicious when lucid, and my heart aches for her even as it recoils. She’s less terrifying than Deanna Dunagan, the Violet of Chicago and Broadway fame, and it’s a choice that serves Live Arts’ intimate setting. Pedersen brings an edge of drama to Barbara that raises the stakes from the beginning of her visit to Pawhuska. As husband Bill, Larry Goldstein is sweet, yet exasperated, eager to remind us that life does exist elsewhere, that escape may actually still be an option. Annie McElroy wears 14-year-old Jean with admirable insouciance; her pot-smoking nonchalance contextualizes the show better than any other element. Except, perhaps, for Johnna, the housekeeper whose radiant warmth, sensitivity, and dedication to cooking are wasted on the Westons. With a small curve of her lip or clear-eyed song, Christina Ball becomes larger than the house she maintains, larger than the people who live in it, and her enduring presence inspires sorrow, too. (As Barbara puts it when staring out at the Plains: “we fucked the Indians for this?”)
But then comes the humor: as Mattie Fae, Violet’s sister, Geri Schirmer is giggle-inducing, and Leo Arico plays her husband Charlie as an open book, a deceit-free foil to everyone else in the show. Little Charles (Scott Dunn) is sentimental but hopeful, and Mary Coy and Lisa Grant, as Violet’s eldest and youngest daughters, bring laughter and a notion of romance that’s as inspiring as it is twisted. I tip my hat to director Fran Smith especially; her vision, orchestration, and excellent pacing allow black humor to crackle across every scene. In a show where tensions run high and long, relieving her audience of our stifled desire to burst under the pressure.
When I first saw August—when it was new on Broadway, after it won Tony and Critics’ Circle Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama—I left the theater feeling sick to my stomach. I’m a sensitive girl who loves her family, and Letts’ story is a potent reminder that vulnerability begs evisceration. It’s time for truth-telling, Violet might say. Better hold on to your hats.
August raises questions we don’t want to answer. For everything wrong with “the Weston girls,” do we all harbor bitterness of family as a unit? Or do we wish for something we never had after betting our lives on the American Dream? Barbara recalls her father’s sorrow-filled voice as he spoke about his homeland: “As if it was too late. As if it was already over. And no one saw it go. This country, this experiment, America, this hubris: what a lament, if no one saw it go.” August raises the questions, but we’re left to wonder.
Even if we long for our mothers at moments on this wild ride, we hold on tight and open our eyes because the conflicts are so honest, so achingly true. “I don’t know what it says about me that I have a greater affinity with the damaged,” Bev says. “Probably nothing good.” Probably, Bev, but at least in this case, we are right there with you.