ST. PETERSBURG — It's got the kind of dramatic twist you don't often experience in American Stage productions: A play about alcoholism, drug addiction, incest, divorce, pedophilia, suicide and cancer. But this unrelenting tale of woe does not come across as a tragedy. Instead, it had the audience howling with laughter at Sunday's matinee.
And in a further twist, the performance isn't even in the theater's own downtown building, but in the Palladium a few blocks up the street.
Combined, these elements make for one of the most satisfying theater experiences in recent memory.
Just about every hot-button topic you can think of is part of August: Osage County, except for perhaps homosexuality (and there are a couple lesbian wisecracks). Yet Tracy Letts' celebrated play kept the audience in stitches during its almost four-hour performance. Never has the dysfunction of the American family been so hilarious.
Do you believe that an absurd, graphically vulgar account of a drug-addicted old woman smuggling Darvocet into a psych ward could be roll-in-the-aisles funny? Don't ask me why or how — the genius of plain-spoken American vernacular is the only explanation I've got, and I realize that sounds pedantic for such a scene — but it brings down the house.
At the center of Letts' black comedy is Violet Weston, the sharp-tongued, pill-popping matriarch of an Oklahoma clan, brought to monstrous life by Lisa McMillan in the sprawling production, directed by Todd Olson, artistic producing director of American Stage. In McMillan's ferocious performance, Violet is a Medea of the plains, psychically destroying her three grown daughters, who have gathered for the funeral of their father, Beverly (Michael Edwards), an alcoholic and failed poet. Not for nothing does Beverly mention John Berryman and Hart Crane, a pair of American poet-suicides, in his opening soliloquy before he vanishes from the play.
What makes McMillan's performance so compelling is that along with the vehement venom of Violet's truth telling, the actor also communicates her warmth, though it surfaces only in fleeting, quicksilver moments: a line from Emily Dickinson dredged up from a drugged stupor; a bizarre, heartbreaking childhood story about some boots, told to her daughters.
Julie Rowe gives a magnificent portrayal of Barbara, the eldest daughter, who ends up drinking like her father and terrorizing the family like her mother. As middle daughter Ivy, Katherine Michelle Tanner is like a lost cowgirl with her waifish look and country twang. Meg Heimstead's Karen, the youngest, is brilliant as she remembers girlhood reveries in her bedroom, pretending that her pillow was her husband. "That pillow was a better husband than any real man I'd ever met," she says, summarizing the Weston sisters' history with men.
The large cast for August: Osage County is as strong from top to bottom as any ever assembled in the bay area. Steve Garland is terrific as Bill Fordham, Barbara's husband, a smart, appealing academic, except he is leaving his wife for one of his students, a betrayal not lost on their foxy, 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Sarah McAvoy). Joe Parra plays Violet's passive, pot-smoking brother in law, Charlie Aiken, and he gets rousing applause when he finally tells off his wife, Mattie Fae (the marvelous Karel Wright), who drops a stunning revelation about her son, Little Charles (Brian Shea). Karen's fiance, Steve (Wayne LeGette), is a smarmy creep. Even the small role of the sheriff (Kerry Glamsch) is distinctive. Tia Jemison's Johnna, a Native American, gives rise to amusing banter on political correctness.
American Stage took a risk by doing Letts' play at the Palladium, instead of its smaller home theater, but the company probably had no other choice. Scott Cooper's richly detailed set of the Weston house, a rambling, three-story affair, needs the spacious dimensions of the Palladium stage (especially its height to accommodate the attic and peaked roof), and the actors inhabit every nook and cranny of the extended family's home place. From where I was seated in the middle of the ground floor, the sight lines were fine. The cast was amplified, and the sound was generally good, if a touch uneven at times. The production puts Eric Clapton's music — Violet is a fan — to excellent use.
August: Osage County is epic, clocking in at three hours, 45 minutes, including two intermissions. Nonetheless, the audience for Sunday's matinee seemed to be riveted. Rarely has such a long play flown by so fast.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.