Every mother's son should know that it's not nice to laugh at another's misery or misfortune. Evidently, playwright Tracey Letts did not learn this fundamental lesson on his mama's knee. If he had, he never would have written such a bitingly dark comedy. August: Osage County is a three-act familial slugfest that incites its audience to cackle unabashedly at the trials and tribulations of the thoroughly miserable and unfortunate Weston family, the most dysfunctional brood to walk the earth since the Borgias.
Winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for drama, August: Osage County has been an international success for the past five years. It is currently receiving an exceedingly intelligent and proficient production at Mad Cow Theatre under the expert direction of local actor, author and educator Bobbie Bell, whose polished cast handles Letts' histrionic yet razor-sharp dialogue with wit, aplomb and precise comic timing.
Letts has apparently delved into his binder of women to extract one of the most fiendish viragos since Medusa in the person of Violet Weston (Peg O'Keef). When not babbling incoherently in a pill-induced haze, the drug-addled family matriarch seems to find her greatest happiness in eviscerating any one of her three adult daughters, all of whom have assembled at the ancestral manse to take care of Mom after the apparent suicide of their father, Beverly (Joe Reed), an alcoholic ex-poet and college professor.
Insisting that all she is doing is "telling the truth," Violet rarely lets a minute go by without insulting or abusing someone. There is no tenderness beneath her honesty – just a bitter humor borne from her own unhappy childhood and a marriage that seems to have gone south a long time ago.
One big target of Violet's barbed attacks is her eldest daughter, Barbara (Elizabeth Dean), who struck out on her own years before and now has returned with her soon-to-be-divorced husband, Bill (Stephan Jones), and her pot-smoking 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Tianna Stevens), in tow. Younger sisters Ivy (Jenna Kirk) and Karen (Ame Livingston) also have their crosses to bear: Both of them are with men – Little Charles (Nicholas Parsons) and Steve (Tommy Keesling), respectively – who are not at all what they seem to be.
Each member of Bell's fine cast turns in a credible performance, but the show belongs to O'Keef and Dean. Making as reprehensible a character as Violet not only sympathetic, but almost likable, O'Keef's deceptively laconic delivery had me wishing that she would actually turn the screws even tighter whenever she went off on a particularly loathsome tirade. And Dean's apparently strong and dutiful daughter, Barbara, achingly reveals an undercurrent of hurt and bewilderment at the painful turns her life has taken.
Psychologists say that we laugh at the guy who slips on the banana peel as an expression of relief that it didn't happen to us. Perhaps audiences laugh at the Westons not just because Letts' script is so droll, but because we know that, even with all our own dramas and trauma, at least we're not doomed to spend a hot August in that sweltering domestic cauldron bubbling on the barren plains of Oklahoma's Osage County.
August: Osage County
through Dec. 23
Mad Cow Theatre
54 W. Church St.