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Estelle Parsons puts the gust in 'August'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Playing a woman who does no right, Estelle Parsons can do no wrong. She provides the white-hot accelerant for the scorching domestic flash fires of "August: Osage County," the tragicomic family portrait that puts ultimate fighting in a whole new sphere.

Parsons, who turned an unfathomable 82 just 11 days ago, tears through the part of Violet Weston, a pill-popping, misery-spreading Oklahoma harridan, with the energy of an actor far younger. It's a performance of uncanny feel and control. And somehow, after 3 1/2 hours of Violet's Vicodin-laced vitriol on the stage of the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, you're still hanging on her words, waiting for her to commit the next outrage.

Playwright Tracy Letts won a Pulitzer Prize for "August," but it might as well have been for dreaming up Violet. Aside from her, the drama is one-dimensional -- the stage equivalent of a dime-store potboiler, rife with melodramatic revelation, a shocking twist at every turn. That makes for an undeniably lively evening: It's sort of a darker, better-written, rural answer to "Desperate Housewives," something on the order of "Hicks Behaving Badly."

Because of its extreme length and outsize dramatic scale, we're led to believe that something of epic impact is unfolding before us. Yet with its narrowly drawn supporting characters and soapy subplots -- How are Ivy and Little Charlie related? Will Barbara and Bill get back together? Why is Steve paying so much attention to underage Jean? -- "August" never graduates to a more profound dimension. When the lights finally go out for the last time on Todd Rosenthal's expansive dollhouse of a set, there's none of the fulfilling sense of completion you get from great drama. You realize that for all the time you've spent with the tempestuous Westons, you've developed no stake in what happens to them.

Letts, the gifted diabolical mind behind such uproarious satires as the bloody comedy "Killer Joe," packs "August" with so many of the controversies that fuel daytime talk and drama that you can't help wondering whether the playwright isn't having us on, just a little. Thanks to a culture of self-gratification, Americans have become conditioned to looking at social ills as bad habits that can be fixed. Codependency and enabling have become veritable aspects of our national character.

The play seems to acknowledge this, not by revolving around one treatable problem but by taking on the whole medicine cabinet. Which may help to explain why so many audience members love it. (It ran for more than a year and a half on Broadway, an eternity for an original play.) Infidelity, cancer, pedophilia, suicide, drug addiction, depression, menopause, teenage sex, alcoholism: You name the Dr. Phil or Dr. Oz affliction -- maybe it's cropped up in your own life -- and it probably also surfaces somewhere in "August."

The entire sprawling story takes place over several weeks in the homestead outside Pawhuska, Okla., of Violet and husband Beverly (Jon DeVries), a boozing poet whose career has faded and who, after hiring as a housekeeper a young Native American woman (DeLanna Studi), promptly disappears. With Vi perpetually high on something, daughter Ivy (Angelica Torn) summons her sisters from other parts of the country -- caustic, unhappy Barbara (Shannon Cochran) and chirpy, desperate Karen (Amy Warren) -- who bring with them mates, fiances and children. And their troubles, too.

The house is like a bunker that incubates dysfunction. Vi has covered the windows over so that night can't be told from day. And even so, this is a familiar American family: No one can get along! The only person who seems to know the meaning of civility is (a bit predictably) Studi's Johnna, the Cheyenne woman who lives in the attic and by degrees becomes the household's consoling spirit.

Letts demonstrates an Albee-esque talent for the waspish exchange: The withering zingers fly every which way all night, especially out of the mouths of Vi and Barbara, the daughter who inherits the mother's scary ferocity and penchant for reducing others to Jell-O. In the play's most entertainingly raucous scene, a solemn family dinner is transformed by Vi's callous truth-telling and Barbara's self-pitying rage into a roiling wrestling match, topped with an attempted strangulation. You're reminded of Eleanor of Aquitaine's understatement about the ghastly comportment of her clan in "The Lion in Winter": "Every family has its ups and downs."

The cast of this touring "August," directed as it was on Broadway by Anna D. Shapiro, is in some respects an improvement on the original. The actors have refined the play's satiric moments, confirming it works best as flat-out comedy. As the sisters, the actresses are all excellent, with Torn's turn as soulful Ivy especially effective. Jeff Still brings emotional vigor to the role of Barbara's straying husband, Bill, and Emily Kinney is persuasive as Jean, a 14-year-old with the kind of yen to experiment that gives parents night sweats.

Parsons is an amazing anchor for this lengthy play of fairly narrow payoff.

Snarling, drawling, spewing hurt like a rotating sprinkler, her extraordinary Vi sits at the epicenter of an evening that rumbles an awful lot but still generates few bona fide aftershocks.

August: Osage County

by Tracy Letts. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro. Costumes, Ana Kuzmanic; lighting, Ann G. Wrightson; sound, Richard Woodbury; original music, David Singer; fight choreography, Chuck Coyl. With Libby George, Paul Vincent O'Connor, Marcus Nelson, Laurence Lau, Stephen Riley Key. About 3 1/2 hours. Through Dec. 20 at Kennedy Center. Visit http://www.kennedy-center.org or call 202-467-4600.

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