At long last, Bari Newport, producing artistic director for the Penobscot Theatre Company, has brought to the Bangor Opera House a play that not only entertains but illuminates the human condition — warts and all.
Newport’s production of “August: Osage County” is a technical triumph and a shining example of how professional actors from away and local talent can come together and almost seamlessly perform a modern American play about the damage one family member can inflict on another.
The play tells the story of the Weston family, reunited after the patriarch, Beverly Weston, goes missing from the home he shares with his volatile wife, Violet. When the couple’s three grown daughters and other family members converge on the family homestead on the outskirts of Tulsa, Oklahoma, old wounds are opened, new ones inflicted and the darkest secrets are casually revealed.
Wednesday night’s audience was small but immensely appreciative that director Newport was willing to take on the challenge of Tracy Letts’ 13- character, three-act, three-hour-long saga, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2008 and was filmed in 2013. Newport cast the show well and created an ensemble that, with few exceptions, becomes a family fraught with flaws. The director guided the cast so that nearly all expertly surf Letts’ dynamic dialogue and delve deeply into the characters’ cracks and crevices.
The rotted heart of the Weston family is Violet, a woman with a foul, cancer-ridden mouth who is addicted to pills and inflicting emotional injuries on her loved ones. Los Angeles-based Danielle Kennedy is a fury onstage in the role. She wrests every ounce of anguish and anger from Letts’ dialogue. Because of how she uses her thin arms, Kennedy’s gestures in her interactions with the actresses playing Violet’s children make her look like a spider attempting to keep them in her web. Her performance remains seared in the minds of theatergoers.
A.J. Mooney as married daughter Barbara Fordham is the perfect foil to Kennedy. Barbara is the character who stands nose to nose with Violet and does not blink. Mooney subtlety shows the vulnerable side of Barbara while fiercely portraying her strength and anger over the losses she must face.
As sisters, Karen and Ivy Weston, Kae Cooney and Amy Roeder show how different people from the same gene pool can turn out. Cooney’s Karen is ditzy, whimsical and willingly wears blinders to the faults of all those around her. Roeder’s Ivy is selflessly stoic but desperately seeking some semblance of peace away from her parents and siblings. Both actresses flawlessly portray the sisters nearly hidden by the giant shadow cast by their mother and Barbara’s relationship.
Julie Lisnet gives a layered performance as Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae Aiken. She is physically and emotionally the opposite of the skinny, angled Kennedy, but Mattie Fae’s tongue is just as sharp. Lisnet gives the character such heart, she becomes one of the few sympathetic women onstage.
Letts’ men are not as well defined as his women are but the actors in this production give them an innate kindness that seems to be missing from the Weston women’s DNA. Brendan Powers, based in Fort Myers, Florida, is a charismatic presence onstage as Barbara’s husband, Bill Fordham. The character gives the audience a sense of who Beverly Weston used to be before he crawled into a bottle of booze. Powers exudes the intellectual charm of a college professor and writer — the same job his father-in-law held at a different institution. His pitch perfect performance shows the cost and frustration of loving a Weston woman.
As Charlie Aiken, Mattie Fae’s husband, Arthur Morison gives a finely-tuned performance. His Charlie often is the only character who understands why this family is in this forced reunion. When Charlie finally explodes in anger at his wife, Morison brings it from a place of love. The moment is meaningful because it is such rare emotion in Letts’ drama.
Allen Adams, Travis Baker, Hannah Box, Brad LaBree, Grace Livingston-Kramer and Richard Sewell also are in the cast. Box needs more experience onstage to portray all the subtleties Letts’ gave Barbara and Bill Fordham’s daughter. Sewell gives little glimpse of the charming poet Beverly used to be but Livingston-Kramer as Violet’s caregiver is a quiet, peaceful presence who is often seen but rarely speaks.
Jonathan Spencer’s magnificent three-story set looks like a tornado ripped the side off the Weston home and blew around the furnishings. His lighting design illuminates nooks, cracks and crannies in the old frame house while at the same time letting the shadows clutch the family’s dark secrets.
Spencer’s work is matched by Meredith Perry’s property design, which is as cluttered and chaotic as the lives of the characters. Brandie Rita’s sound design is hauntingly serene, in contrast to the story being told.
In Newport’s three plus years at PTC, she often has put the value of entertaining her audience over challenging it. “August: Osage County” proves she can do both and ought to do so more often in the future.
“August: Osage County” will be performed Wednesdays through Sundays through May 17. To purchase tickets or for more details, call the box office at 207-942-3333 or go online at penobscottheatre.org.