From the moment Meryl Streep appears in August: Osage County, slinking from the shadows with angry, addled eyes and chemo-singed hair, viewers know they're in for acting with a capital "A." Be assured Streep won't let us down, in a rafter-rattling performance that's pure prosciutto: classy ham.
This adaptation of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer and Tony winning play is structured for her showcasing, streamlined by more than an hour from its stage length without much curtailing of Streep's role as Violet Weston, the venomous matriarch of an Oklahoma clan. Not exactly America's heartland, more like where the ulcer would be.
Violet is one of those flamboyant, faded flowers of American theater that every great playwright concocts sooner or later, shrouding her physical decay with a jet-black wig with oversized sunglasses, a cigarette or painkiller in one hand and a tumbler of whiskey in the other. Violet's maternal coo is now a raspy growl, and her unfiltered words lacerate without relief. "Truth telling," she calls it. Cruelty is what it is.
August: Osage County is set during a rare, reluctant Weston convergence of recriminations and spite. Violet's incredibly stoic husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) has the good sense to skip the reunion he causes by dying, a brief but vital role establishing Violet's compulsive, profane hostility, shredding the essence of anyone in earshot.
The only Weston with any chance of dishing it back is Violet's daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts, earthy and effective), arriving with her cheating husband (Ewan McGregor). As the eldest daughter, Barbara has heard enough, and can't understand why middle sister Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) remains so devoted. Youngest sister Karen (Juliette Lewis) is just passing through on the way to Belize with a smarmy fiance (Dermot Mulroney).
Anyone familiar with Letts' previous immorality plays Killer Joe and Bug (both turned into movies) may consider August: Osage County his least disturbing. But there's a pervasive cruelty, a condescension toward common folks like the Westons that's frequently off-putting, even as we're laughing.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.