Review: August: Osage County at Phoenix 

click to enlarge Family matriarch Violet (Martha Jacobs) fights her demons; her family — Johnna (Erin Cohenour), Jean (Abby Hart), Bill (Bill Simmons) and Barbara (Diane Kondrat) — watches on. - ZACH ROSING
  • Family matriarch Violet (Martha Jacobs) fights her demons; her family — Johnna (Erin Cohenour), Jean (Abby Hart), Bill (Bill Simmons) and Barbara (Diane Kondrat) — watches on.
  • Zach Rosing

It’s August in Osage County, Oklahoma which, for the purposes of this Pulitzer Prize winning play by Tracy Letts, consists of one, rather large old house (a magisterial, multi-level set by Bernie Killian) that practically groans with the weight of the Weston family’s accumulated hopes, fears and, as one character puts it, bottomless meanness. The windows are newspapered over, there’s no air conditioning: it’s a hotbox.

The action commences with Beverly Weston (Ken Farrell), the family patriarch conducting an inebriated interview with a young Cheyenne Indian woman (Erin Cohenour). Weston is looking to hire the woman as a live-in caregiver, ostensibly, for he and his wife, Violet (the towering Martha Jacobs), who suffers from mouth cancer and is addicted to a full spectrum of prescription painkillers. Beverly, it turns out, is a poet; when he hires the woman he gives her a copy of works by T.S. Eliot, the unhappily married author of "The Waste Land."

Then a family crisis ensues: Beverly disappears and the rest of his family, including his three grown daughters and their respective spouses, kids and significant others, converge on the old homestead. The walls of that house — and of the theater, as well — begin to tremble.

This is an overstuffed sofa of a play (three and a half hours, with two intermissions), rich with verbal pyrotechnics and ambition. Playwright Letts uses the familiar set-up of shambolic family gathering as a pretext for an exploration of the millennial American condition that, for scope and intensity, has a heft resembling Greek tragedy. But Letts’ dramatic architecture is cunning. Although his set-up seems familiar, the characters he uses to enact this behavioral mash-up are all slightly off-beat; they’re, for the most part, smart people who are just self-aware enough to really get themselves into trouble.

Director Bryan Fonseca has assembled a large and, to an actor, brilliant cast, a locally-grown all-star team, including Charles Goad, Matthew Roland, Diane Timmerman, Bill Simmons and Gayle Steigerwald. There isn’t space here, unfortunately, to address them all, but Diane Kondrat, as the elder sister Barbara who becomes the inadvertent axle for her unhappily spinning family, is, by turns, hilarious, unforgiving, broken-hearted and volcanic. This is a tour de force performance by an actor with soul-stirring range. Through March 11 at Phoenix Theatre.

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