If You Go
“August: Osage County” continues Fridays through Sundays through March 23 at Steel River Playhouse, 245 E. High St. in Pottstown. Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances are at 7 p.m. and Sunday matinees are at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15 to $24 and may be purchased online at www.steelriver.org or by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 610-970-1199.
Which came first — the play or the movie? Although many people are familiar with “August: Osage County” because of the current movie, I deliberately chose not to see the film, because I knew I would be seeing the Pulitzer Prize-winning play at Steel River Playhouse. I am a firm believer in seeing the story in its purest form — in this case, the dark comedy play by Tracy Letts.
Set in the heat of summer in Osage County, Oklahoma, the play centers around the Weston family, Beverly and Viola Weston, their three daughters and various other family members and in-laws. The characters are complex, multi-layered and unforgettable.
And the women of this family leave an indelible impression on the audience. They are strong-willed, unique and flawed.
At the center of this mercurial clan is Violet, the matriarch, whose addiction to prescription drugs and aggressive personality has affected the entire family. She is played to perfection by Barb Hannevig who manages the incredibly difficult addled dialogue with ease. Her verbal abuse of her daughters and other family members is painfully realistic.
Matching her in the realism department is Shawneen Rowe as the eldest daughter, Barbara, who returns home after her father has gone missing. The interaction between these two is a battle of the wills that will seem very familiar to some, albeit on a grander scale than in most families.
In contrast to these two women, their husbands seem subdued, if not submissive.
The father, Beverly, an aloof, cerebral professor whose poetry earned him acclaim decades ago, is deftly played by Larry Gessler. His disappearance is what triggers the rest of the family to converge on the family homestead from other parts of the country.
Paul Dake plays Bill, Barbara’s estranged husband, with a calm strength, that is a perfect counterbalance to his acerbic and assertive wife. His is the voice of reason that keeps the family in a believable category.
The other sisters, Ivy, played by Margo O’Moore, and Karen, the youngest, played by Andrea Frassoni, at first seem intimidated by their mother, but gradually show that they too, can assert themselves when they want to.
O’Moore is convincing as Ivy, the middle daughter who has to put up with her mother badgering her to wear makeup and dress to be more attractive to men. Her performance is low-key, which gains her the audience’s support.
In contrast, Frassoni, is upbeat as the naïve youngest daughter who has brought her fiancé home to meet the family. Her light-hearted approach helps to offset some of the darker aspects of the play.
Matching Violet for the lack of filter when talking to people is Donna Dougherty as Mattie Fae, Violet’s sister. Dougherty has some of the funniest lines in the show and delivers them with her usual precision and comedic skill. They wouldn’t work nearly as well without the chemistry she has with John Reardon who plays her likeable and steadfast husband, Charles.
Other cast members may not have as much time on stage, but add their personal spin to the other unique characters at the gathering — Rachel Diamond plays Johnna, the newly hired cook/servant with a tenderness, while Mark Ayers plays Karen’s fiancé, Steve, with a swagger appropriate to this scoundrel.
Greg Kasander evokes sympathy as Little Charles, the 37-year-old cousin, who is still beleaguered and belittled by his Aunt Violet and mother, Mattie Fae.
The youngest cast member, Natalie Young, fits in well with the other strong Weston women as the granddaughter, Jean, who manages to push boundaries and buttons with the rest of the family.
Paul Perrymore as Sheriff Gilbeau manages to bring out another side of Barbara in the final act as the two share some tender moments.
The play is at times outrageously funny and at others, intensely disturbing, creating a challenge for the actors and director to balance the two and keep the story moving forward.
Guest Director Harland Meltzer has done just that, and has guided the cast to create what is a very believable, if eccentric and unorthodox family.
What makes live theater such as this so compelling is that it is three-dimensional. Unlike the silver screen, there is a sense of time, place and emotional connection that is palpable, to the point of feeling like you’re eavesdropping on some intensely personal and potentially explosive private conversations. I have yet to experience that in a movie theater.
The play is fairly long, and with two intermissions, ran about 3 hours and 20 minutes at Sunday’s matinee. It also contains mature themes, sexual content and adult language.