Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, directed by Omar Sangare, at Williams College

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August: Osage County
by Tracy Letts

‘62 Center for the Performing Arts
Williams College
Director: Omar Sangare
Dramaturg: Ilya Khodosh, Yale
Stage Movement: Pau Aran Gimeno from Pina Bausch Company
Set Designer: Joanna Kus, Poland
Lighting Designer: Coby Chasman-Beck, NYC
Sound Designer: Stephen Simalchik, NYC
Costume Designer: Deborah Brothers, Williams
Props Artisan: Paige Carter, Williams
Fight Choreographer: Alexander Sovronsky, Berkshires
Production Manager: Emily Rea, Williams
Stage Manager: Moiz Rehan, Williams
Graphic Designer: Julia Kwinto, U.K.
Asst. to the Set Designer: Konstanty Konopinski, Poland
Animation Advisor: Szymon Prewysz-Kwinto, U.K.
Teaching Assistants: John Salemi and Michael Tcherepashenets, Williams

Evelyn (Evi) Mahon – Violet Weston
TL Guest – Beverly Weston
Gabrielle (“Gabz”) Amos-Grosser – Johnna Monevata
Caroline Fairweather – Barbara Weston-Fordham
Jackson Zerkle and Michael Tcherepashenets – Bill Fordham
Sophie Gaddes – Jean Fordham
Victoria (“Tori”) Jasuta – Mattie Fae Aiken
Ashish Solanki – Charles Aiken
Jack Romans – Little Charlie Aiken
Jacqueline Simone – Karen Weston
Brigid Bruno – Ivy Weston
Danny Donahue – Steve Huberbrecht
Michael Kidd-Phillips – Sheriff Deon Gilbeau
Samuel.B.Stark – Understudy

Every spring for some years now the brilliant Polish actor-director-playwright-poet Omar Sangare has created extraordinary productions at the ‘62 Center for the Performing Arts with his acting students at Williams College, and they keep on getting better. All of them have been highly unusual. There was a double-cast A Streetcar Named Desire: by that I mean that it was performed by two separate casts almost, but not quite simultaneously. Far from an weird distraction, the device emphasized the universality of the play…and gave the many interested student actors a chance to perform. There was Gombrowicz’s classic proto-absurdist farce, Princess Iwona, which was also performed on Broadway. This year there was an especially ambitious project, August: Osage County, which attracted a great deal of attention around the United States and especially in Chicago and New York, where the original production, created by Steppenwolf, was played. The National Theatre in London also took it up and even toured their production in the United States. The play won the Pulitzer Prize, a Tony, and a Drama Desk Award as best play, and others, and the cast of the Chicago and Broadway productions were showered with awards, above all the incomparable Deanna Dunagan in the role of Violet, the acerbic, pill-popping mater familias. For all the elaborate set, showing the interior of three stories of a large mid-western Victorian house, the superb performances, and the cleverness of Letts’ black comedy, I was not overly impressed when I saw the play at the Music Box Theater in June 2008. (You can read my review here.) I thought that Letts’ determination to deprive his characters of any last shred of dignity, mainly using low humor, signaled by taboo words, and relentlessly piling on bad behavior and the results of bad behavior. The succession of shocking discoveries about the Weston family was so extreme it was funny, but little else. A certain numbness set in for me.

In this Williams production I found myself far more receptive to the play, largely because the Dr. Sangare studied it in his usual profound way, and re-conceived his production in a way that made it more clearly focused on the most important themes of the story and most important aspects of the characters, their most telling interactions, and the shape of the action. In this production the play was leaner and the actors had more room to breathe, and there was a balance between the tragic qualities of the play and its grotesque humor. The profanity was also managed to perfection and seemed less of an easy way to raise a laugh. (Students know how to swear, don’t they?) There was also a stronger feeling of wit and irony at work, and I felt I was laughing at a higher level. I left the theater well entertained, but also deeply moved and instructed. When I saw August: Osage County for the first time, I wondered if it would have much of an afterlife, but now I have seen its afterlife, and it was more alive than it was a decade ago.

The enormous house without walls was gone. The lights went up on the bleak expanse of the Great Plains, with a solitary dark-skinned woman in Indian costume standing silently by a tree. Other actors appear, to arrange props and gradually begin to act in character. As Beverly Weston presents Johnna Monevata, the young Indian woman, to his wife, Violet, now seated in her wheel-chair, the story begins to unfold. We begin to understand that Johnna, as she listens to Bev’s more than frank accounts of Violet’s addiction to pills and his own alcoholism, will be free from judgment, as she cares for these miserable, rather dreadful people, as they strive to make each other more miserable with their nasty jibes. The European descendants of the people who took the land away from Johnna’s ancestors manifest themselves in the Weston family in Bev, who grew up in dire poverty to get an education, become a prominent poet in his day, and ply an academic career of sorts, both sober and drunk. He and Violet, whom he married early in life, as a poor man, managed to acquire some wealth through investments. Their children are incurably warped from having grown up under a marriage poisoned by addiction and adultery. It’s all too seamy! You would think Johnna couldn’t wait to get away from them, but she declares herself willing to continue to look after the queen of nastiness, Violet. The aboriginal spirit endures.

The story played out most effectively on the open stage, with the characters interacting around ordinary domestic props: tables and chairs and shelves. Bev has disappeared. The family discuss their worries. The bad news comes. Was Bev’s drowning a drunken accident or premeditated suicide? The post-funeral dinner forms the great centerpiece of the play. In this production the table functions as a sideboard, and Johnna fills plates, which the family consume on their laps. Sleazy Steve, the fiancé of the youngest of the Weston children, Karen, plies his future niece, Jean, with pot, and attempts to seduce her. Johnna exposes and prevents it, blowing open the illusion of Karen’s intended marriage. The affection between Ivy, the middle daughter of the Westons, and “Little” Charles, the son of Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae, and supposedly her husband, Charlie, and their plans to live together in New York offers for a while some odd hope for the future happiness of some family members, but we learn that the match is impossible, since Bev was in fact “Little” Charles’s father, and they are half-brother and sister. What once seemed like one risible scandal after another, now seemed tragic, and I was able to sympathize with the Westons and their brood. Now, in my mind, that is one of the essentials of the play, that the family, no matter how unpleasant they are, remain sympathetic and pitiable. They are not so much bad as trapped in the claustrophobic constraints of their familial relationships, their legacy. Bev was not evil or a pervert. He was a man with a great love of literature and books, a man of talent, who brought himself out of poverty by making art. Alcohol compromised his career and his family, presumably opening the gates to an affair with his wife’s sister. The future generations are reaping the fruits of his sloppiness, rather than Oedipal fate or Captain Alving’s violation of bourgeois constraints in Ibsen’s Ghosts and its medical consequences in an era of rampant syphilis. There is physical rot in August: Osage County in Violet’s mouth cancer, the result of years of constant smoking, which she continues to pursue, as she is treated. She uses her mouth liberally in the play, to drip the vilest insinuations and the vilest insults to her family, amply providing her disease with a moral equivalent. Then there is the haunting of incest.

Sangare’s radical reimagining of the play on stage accounts for much of the production’s profound impact, but the superb actors, all students at Williams College, and most not even theater majors, achieved a marvel of ensemble acting that professionals might envy. It’s taken the better part of forty years for American actors to assimilate ensemble playing as their own, but now they are very good at it, as good as the British and Central and Eastern European actors who have learnt it from the ground up in their training, like Dr. Sangare, who earned his Ph.D. at the National Academy of Dramatic Art in Warsaw. This sophisticated skill is clearly among the many that Dr. Sangare is passing on to his students.

There were no weak performances at all. Each student delved into his or her character and worked out from that. All the characters were clearly, vividly differentiated. I have nothing but the highest praise for all concerned. TL Guest, a senior studying political economy in his first appearance on stage, launched the show with a strong, nuanced portrayal of the alcoholic, has-been poet preparing for his exit from his marriage and from life. I thought his insight into the role showed impressive maturity. Evelyn Mahon, who played Violet to perfection, is a theater major and has several roles to her credit. Her acting was a tour de force, as the part demands. Her Violet was even more vicious than Dunagan’s. She was also funny, scoring numerous laughs at the expense of her craven offspring, but Violet’s pain and drug-induced confusion were at the center of her portrayal, and that made it actually more involving than the justly admired work of Dunagan, which was perhaps diminished by the enormous set: on Broadway the Westons seemed to rush about the house like swarms of carpenter ants. Sangare’s concept placed Johnna front and center, and Gabrielle (“Gabz”) Amos-Grosser’s acting filled out this complex role with a fully-realized feeling for the young woman’s restrained emotional navigation of the difficult relationships she must witness. It’s at its worst, when the fourteen-year-old Jean Fordham berates her for saving her from Steve Heidebrecht’s clutches. And in Sophie Gaddes they found a freshman who can actually pass as fourteen. This was a Williams theater debut for both of them. Violet and Bev’s eldest daughter, Barbara Fordham followed her father’s example in an academic career and her mother’s in brittle bitchiness. She is separated from her husband, Bill, who has been having and affair with one of his students, would like to reconcile with him, and cannot understand why he is not interested. These were two key parts, especially so in this production, and were played with special insight and subtlety by Caroline Fairweather and Michael Tcherepashenets. Ashish Solanki was both pathetic and amusing as Charles Aiken, the mealy-mouthed idealist who married Mattie Fae, Violet’s sister, to be cuckolded by Bev. Their son, “Little” Charlie, vividly played by Jack Romans, a freshman contemplating a combine theater and mathematics major, clearly suffered from the lack of a strong father figure in his life. Victoria (“Tori”) Jasuta’s Mattie Fae was every bit as acerbic as her sister, but restrained, because, lacking pills, she has not yet given up on bourgeois appearances. Jacqueline Simeone, an economics major, who has had quite a bit of experience in stage and film, played Karen Weston, Steve’s hapless fiancée, as a woman with some power through her beauty and sexiness, who in her delusion, has bet all her chips on a loser. Further compliments to Michael I. Kidd-Phillips and Brigid Bruno for their fine works as Sherriff Deon Gilbeau, Barbara’s old flame, and Ivy Weston, unfortunately in love with her half-brother, “Little” Charlie.

Through his work in Europe, Professor Sangare was able to involve two outstanding professionals, set designer Joanna Kus from Poland and Pau Aran Gimeno of the Pina Bausch Company to direct stage movement. The dramaturg Ilya Khodosh, a recent Williams graduate and pupil of Dr. Sangare’s, is now a Ph.D. candidate at Yale Drama School.

This was an absorbing and powerful evening of theater, one which brought home to me the latent strength of Tracy Letts’ play. It is clear that his creation is sufficiently rich to elicit a variety of different approaches, and, if he had seen this, I think he would feel deeply rewarded…by his own achievement, Omar Sangare’s understanding of his play, and the outstanding, dedicated work of the Williams students. I hope, like Princess Iwona, this production will appear in New York. I’d love to see it again.

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