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'August: Osage County' closes the Hilberry Theatre season with a bang

Directed by James R. Kuhl and featuring Lavinia Hart, this rioting Hilberry Theatre production of August: Osage County is not to be missed.
Directed by James R. Kuhl and featuring Lavinia Hart, this rioting Hilberry Theatre production of August: Osage County is not to be missed.Photos by Bruce Giffin

August: Osage County at the Hilberry Theatre

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The Hilberry Theatre’s final play of the season is “August: Osage County,” which earned Tracy Letts the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This production is remarkable for a number of reasons. It is an uncomfortable but irresistible oddity – a brutally funny, frighteningly honest production. It is brilliantly directed by Hilberry alumnus James R. Kuhl – currently Artistic Director of the Tipping Point Theatre – last seen at the Hilberry five years ago in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” And it stars, in the role of the pill-addled matriarch Violet Weston, Lavinia Hart, who is possibly the most well-known theatre pro in the area and Head of the MFA Acting Program at Wayne State University.

Lavinia Hart as Violet Weston in August: Osage County.
Lavinia Hart as Violet Weston in August: Osage County.Photos by Bruce Griffin

Whether or not you saw the critically acclaimed film version of Letts’ masterpiece, you should scurry down to the Hilberry to see this live production. The experience is unforgettable. We’ve seen and enjoyed this play elsewhere, and expected Ms. Hart to be amazing in the powerhouse role of Violet Weston. She was all that and more – scary, smart and explosive.

But we frankly had some trepidation about how the young Hilberry company would handle this powerfully toxic play – the way one should worry about letting the Chemistry 101 class play with anthrax endospores. We are delighted to report that this cast, to a person, was outstanding. And the opening night audience affirmed this with a standing ovation.

Danielle Cochrane, as Vi’s daughter Barbara, is transcendent. She walks onto the stage as an intelligent woman and caring mother, and dashes off at the end a broken reflection of her parents’ worst demons. And that, if anything, is what the plot of “August” is about. It’s an exploration of the different ways in which everyone in the family tries to achieve escape velocity from Violet Weston’s lethal gravitational pull. The effort is futile.

The play opens as Vi’s husband, the alcoholic poet Beverly Weston, hires Johnna, a young Cherokee woman, to act as cook and housekeeper. We realize later that Johnna is Beverly’s final gift to his wife and three daughters; he is arranging his own suicide. And he seems to know that Johnna will be protected against the family demons by the turtle totem she wears – a gift made by her grandmother that carries her own umbilical cord – a symbol of healthy matriarchal connectivity.

Brandy Joe Plambeck, as Charlie Aiken, is rock solid as the only family member in Letts’ play that is wholly likeable. A seemingly shallow person, he stands as proof that love is stronger than truth.

For all its ugly, biting sarcasm – which is hilarious, if disturbing – Tracy Letts has infused this play with swirling poetic language and allusions. The play’s name is borrowed from a beautiful poem by Howard Starks about the passing of a heroic, much-admired matriarch. Incongruous, of course, given the play’s themes of family dysfunction and broken maternal instincts. Letts opens and closes “August” with T.S. Eliots’ bleak poem, “The Hollow Men.” And although Violet intuitively tries to ward off that stifling miasma by invoking Emily Dickinson’s more optimistic “Because I could not stop for death,” she finds that, like the Hollow Man in the poem, she cannot quite manage to spit the words out.

Kuhl lets us see these the shadow of these hollow men in the specters of Beverly and other family members who haunt the house between scenes, even when we know they are supposed to be gone. And like the Eliot poem, the play ends “not with a bang, but a whimper.” Ultimately, that too is left unvoiced.

The Hilberry Company is to be congratulated on this riveting production. The cast includes: Alec Barbour (Beverly Weston), Megan Barbour (Karen Weston), Bevin Bell-Hall (Mattie Fae Aiken), Miles Boucher (Bill Fordham), Danielle Cochrane (Barbara Fordham), Brandon Grantz (Steve Heidebrecht), Lavinia Hart (Violet Weston), Annie Keris (Ivy Weston), Egla Kishta (Jean Fordham), Sarah Hawkins Moan (Johnna Monevata), Topher Alan Payne (Sheriff Deon Gilbeau), Brandy Joe Plambeck (Charlie Aiken), David Sterritt (Little Charles Aiken).

The production team includes: James R. Kuhl (Director), Sarah Drum (Stage Manager), Lyndee Hallahan (Asst. Stage Manager), Leazah Behrens (Scenic Design), Clare Hungate-Hawk (Costume Designer), Heather DeFauw (Lighting Design), Leah McCall (Sound Designer), Michael J. Barnes (Dialect Coach), Andrew Papa (Dialect Coach), Brian Dambacher (Technical Director), Mike Sabourin (Properties Master), Michael “Mick” Keathley (Master Electrician), Maxwell Bolton (Publicist).

“August: Osage County” runs at the Hilberry Theatre through May 10, with performances on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and matinees on Wedesday, April 23 and Saturday, April 19 and May 3, at 2 p.m. The Hilberry is located on the campus of Wayne State University at 4743 Cass Avenue. Tickets range from $10 to $30 and are available by calling or visiting the Hilberry Theatre Box Office (313.577.2972) or purchasing them online.