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Theater with a Capital “T”- August: Osage County Opens KC Rep’s 2011-12 Season

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Kansas City Repertory Theatre artistic director Eric Rosen has opened his season in persuasive fashion with one of the past decade’s most dazzling American plays—August: Osage County, Tracy Letts’ darkly comedic portrayal of twisted family dynamics.

Originating at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater in 2007 before going on to a Broadway run that netted a Tony Award for Best Play and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the work is an uncanny combination of wickedly funny one-liners melded to caustic familial realism, and the Rep does the work full justice.

Rosen, who directs here, uses an all-local cast, and they never fail to give Letts’ dramaturgy the weight it demands. Merle Moores as Violet Weston, an Oklahoma family’s bitter, pill-popping matriarch, and Cheryl Weaver as her prim eldest daughter, who endlessly clashes with her mother, are two standouts. And aptly so—the complex relationship these two share forms the emotional core of the work.

Things are kicked off in clever, if somewhat mundane, fashion when Violet’s husband disappears after the first scene, which brings the large, extended Weston clan homeward to the Oklahoma plains to solve the mystery of his whereabouts. Soon, though, the past rears its ugly head, revealing a tangle of buried resentments and unresolved conflicts. Aunts, sisters, husbands and daughters make their way through the text with incessant hostility, bickering and, in a memorable dinner scene, physical blows.

Rosen’s direction is spot on; he choreographs the intense proceedings with the intricacy of a fully-staged musical production. This is especially apparent as the family prepares for a post-funeral dinner—every room in the impressive three story set crackles with energy as the cast is separated into duos and trios running about in emotional frenzies, dressing and primping while squabbling amongst themselves.

And about the set: Donald Eastman has designed a superbly realistic cross-section of a home that looks to have marched straight off the Midwestern plains. And Mark Kent Varns’ lighting design is rich in its use of practical effects.

The play is not without its faults: Its hefty three hour, twenty minute running time is frequently burdened with soap opera-like situations—a witting, and unwitting, incestuous affair; a pedophiliac encounter; and the saddling-on of excessive literary allusions. These points distract from the grand themes that Letts otherwise successfully tackles—How can two resolutely unalike generations reconcile their differences? What are the limits of familial love? And, perhaps most significantly, how does a woman refrain from becoming the mother she hates?

The finer points in Letts’ work offer answers—or at least point us in the right direction—with an emotional realism that is among the most daunting qualities to portray onstage, all the while using fiendish humor to propel things along.

In fact, it’s eerie how well Letts understands what makes large, inter-generational families tick, and how well Eric Rosen has portrayed that family onstage. An extraordinary way to start a season.

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