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January 19, 2013

Everyman Theatre opens its new house with 'August: Osage County'

Families that flay together can’t stay together for long.

That’s just one of the life’s painful little lessons conveyed to searing effect in “August: Osage County,” the 2008 Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play by Tracy Letts receiving its Baltimore premiere under the happiest of circumstances -- the inauguration of the much-anticipated Everyman Theatre on West Fayette Street.

The vibrant production provides a fitting display for the handsome new facility, where the Empire, Palace and Town theaters once operated. (On opening night, a hum, apparently from the lighting grid overhead, proved a minor distraction.)

The most substantial asset of the venue is a proper stage, capable of handling the three-level set required by “August,” a set that would have been impossible at the company’s previous, low-ceilinged venue.

Resident scenic designer Daniel Ettinger has taken full advantage of the opportunity, deftly evoking the aging home 60 miles from Tulsa, where the three-hour-plus saga of the Weston Family can unfold seamlessly. And what a saga.

Letts conjures up a nightmare of family troubles -- suicide, infidelity, alcoholism, drug addiction, dirty middle-aged men, smoldering grudges. As one of the members observes: "Thank God we can't tell the future. We'd never get out of bed."

The Westons put the “diss” and the “shun” in dysfunction, but, in a weird way, they put the "fun" in it, too. You end up laughing through some pretty rough clawing and carping, thanks to the playwright’s brilliant flair for dark comedy.

But you walk away with some awfully sobering, conflicted thoughts. With each twist of a phrase or turn in a conversation, Letts keeps the audience constantly off-balance, so that, in the end, we have as little to hold onto as the characters do.

The play requires a ...

large, tightly cohesive cast and, for the most part, that’s what Everyman delivers in a staging fluently directed by the company’s founding artistic director Vincent Lancisi.

At the center of action is Violet, the pill-popping, cancer-ridden matriarch of the household who has an unsettling habit of “truth-telling.” Linda Thorson, a veteran of the theater and TV (notably “The Avengers”) making her Everyman debut, seizes the role forcefully.

Her portrayal, especially in the last two acts, has a compelling, almost diabolic dynamism. And when the character is at her most vulnerable, Thorson affectingly opens a window into the tortured and torturing woman’s soul.

When Violet’s husband Beverly (the reliable Carl Schurr) disappears, the couple’s three daughters return home, each bearing emotional baggage from the past and a whole mess of fresh tension involving the present and the men in their lives.

Deborah Hazlett, as the oldest and most cynical daughter, Barbara, gives a superb performance, alive with nuance and alert to the smallest shifts in the play’s tone. Maia Desanti also does an admirable job as the chatty, naive youngest daughter, Karen.

The third sibling, Ivy, who has perhaps the toughest road ahead by the time the curtain falls, is played ably, if a little stiffly, by Beth Hylton. 

Among the others who find themselves caught in this house of shards, there are standout contributions from Nancy Robinette and Wil Love as Mattie Fae and Charlie Aiken, tense sister and brother-in-law to Violet. Both offer multilayered interpretations that provide some of the most memorable dramatic and comic sparks alike (Love saying grace at the dining room table is priceless).

Clinton Brandhagen offers a sturdy performance as awkward Little Charles Aiken, who has been stepping into dangerous territory with Ivy.

Heather Lynn Peacock is convincing as Jean, the untethered teenage daughter of Barbara and Bill, played less convincingly by Rob Leo Roy. Bruce Randolph Nelson, as Karen's supposedly ideal mate, and Veronica Del Cerro, as the stoic young Native American who works at the house, could also use a little more finesse.

Occasional unevenness aside, there are easily enough strengths, which should only increase as the run continues. The production provides an impressive baptism for Everyman's welcoming new home, and effectively serves a wonderfully sprawling, yet subtly symmetrical, play that has much to say about the ever-fragile state of the human condition.

"August: Osage County" runs through Feb. 17.

PHOTO (Deborah Hazlett and Linda Thorson) BY STAN BAROUH

Posted by Tim Smith at 4:48 PM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens, Everyman Theatre
        

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at baltimoresun.com/artsmash. This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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