The folks at 1-800-FLOWERS must be grateful there aren’t more Violet Westons. Violet is the flakily savage matriarch at the heart of “August: Osage County,” Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. A prescription-drug addict who seems to take pleasure in emotionally brutalizing her daughters — in part because it proves her own strength — she is rude and cruelly manipulative, and she likes to keep her house at the temperature of the Sahara. If more moms were like her, Mother’s Day would be a financial flop.
Witness the Violet who is splendidly rampaging through the Keegan Theatre’s “August: Osage County,” courtesy of actress Rena Cherry Brown: Tottering around her Oklahoma house in a red nightgown like a deranged sprite; viciously lashing out at her relatives during a meal; triumphantly flourishing her pill vial — Brown’s Violet is a survivor who has raised kooky brutality to a high art.
Few of Brown’s cast mates match her poise and inspired idiosyncrasies, but most of the performances are solid and distinctive enough to heat Letts’s 2007 potboiler to a lively simmer. And director Mark A. Rhea has calibrated the pace and rhythms of the piece judiciously — no small matter with a domestic epic that clocks in at 31 / 2 hours. (Christina A. Coakley is assistant director.)
Packed with dysfunctional-family melodrama and satisfying zingers, “August: Osage County” chronicles the clashes and revelations that roil Violet’s household after her husband, Beverly, an alcoholic poet, mysteriously disappears. When Violet and Beverly’s three daughters return home to help their mother through the crisis, long-buried secrets, finely aged resentments and new scandals flare up. Coping with the fallout, and with her own problems, is Violet’s oldest daughter, Barbara (Susan Marie Rhea), who squares off with her mother in a battle of wills.
Actress Rhea spends a little too much time exuding the same air of stony exasperation, but her character’s desperate war with Violet is dramatic. We do catch a few glimpses of Barbara’s vulnerabilities, especially in a poignant encounter with the local sheriff (a persuasive Eric Lucas), who turns out to be an old flame.
Looking aptly wan, Belen Pifel radiates the right stubborn awkwardness as Barbara’s sister Ivy. Karen Novack is reasonably convincing as the third sister, Karen, who is determined to be well adjusted, even if the price is self-delusion. In one telling scene, Karen and Barbara set the table for dinner: Karen burbles away about love while Barbara grimly doles out the silverware, lips pursed.
With her cloying manner and Southern drawl, Kerry Waters Lucas’s version of Mattie Fae, Violet’s sister, appears to have waltzed in from a Tennessee Williams parody. Fortunately, other supporting performers — including Charlie Abel as Karen’s smarmy fiance; Lyndsay Rini as Barbara’s pot-smoking daughter; and Stan Shulman as the (briefly seen) grizzled Beverly — are more convincing.
Set designer Stefan Gibson and properties designer Katrina Wiskup have created an atmospheric two-story homestead whose dingy furniture, cluttered shelves and dirty, yellow-toned walls seem to testify to years of neglect. It’s a space that Brown’s Violet seems born to haunt: In one memorable scene, the aging addict steals down the central staircase, talking incoherently. She puts on an Eric Clapton record and does a wobbly hoedown to “Lay Down Sally,” her hands making plucking motions — as though she were ripping other people’s happiness out of their grasp.
Wren is a freelance writer.
by Tracy Letts. Directed by Mark A. Rhea; assistant director, Christina A. Coakley; lighting design, Megan Thrift; costumes, Erin Nugent; sound, Jake Null; set dressing and properties, Carol H. Baker; fight choreography, Kyle Encinas; hair and makeup, Craig Miller. With Colin Smith, Kevin Adams, Michael Innocenti and Shadia Hafiz. Three and a half hours. Through Sept. 2 at the Church Street Theater, 1742 Church St. NW. Call 703-892-0202 or visit www.keegantheatre.com.