Everyman opens its new doors with expansive play, powerhouse performances

August: Osage County

Directed by Vincent Lancisi

Written by Tracy Letts

Through Feb. 17

There are several reasons why Vince Lancisi, artistic director of the Everyman Theatre, might have chosen August: Osage County as the first production for the company's new home at the old Town Theatre on the west side. For one thing, the play requires a huge set, incorporating three stories of a house-which would not have been even remotely possible in the company's cramped former space on Charles Street-and you can imagine that Lancisi was eager to show off the capabilities of the new space. The play, by Tracy Letts, also calls for a large cast, which allows Lancisi to showcase much of the company's resident troupe, of which he is rightfully very proud. And a running time of three and a half hours with two intermissions allows audiences to spend significant time getting to know the space and appreciating the plush seats, another vast improvement over the Charles Street location.

But more than anything, we're guessing that Lancisi chose this play simply because it is a fantastic piece of theater. Lancisi has consistently made excellent choices for the Everyman, and August: Osage County, which debuted at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in 2007 before moving to Broadway, continues that tradition, offering Everyman's dedicated fan base a meaty, thoughtful play, superbly presented, that will have audiences alternately laughing, crying, and likely recognizing some uncomfortable truths about ourselves, our families, and even our country.

The play, set in rural Osage County, Okla., opens as Beverly Weston (Carl Schurr), the heavy-drinking, retired professor and patriarch of the Weston clan, interviews Johnna Monevata (Veronica del Cerro), a young Cheyenne woman, for the job of live-in housekeeper. Resident troupe member Schurr, who has turned in several stellar performances for the Everyman in recent years, plays Weston with weary intellectual warmness that is quickly contrasted with the sight of his unhinged, pill-addicted wife, Violet (Linda Thorson), who staggers out of an upstairs bedroom speaking confused gibberish. It quickly becomes clear that Beverly, who has long since passed the point of being embarrassed by Violet ("I drink, she takes pills," he says several times by way of explanation), is hiring Johnna specifically to look after his wife.

Then, the play jumps forward several days and Beverly Weston is missing. Family members, scattered around the country, slowly gather at the house, building tension, one by one. There's Violet's brusque sister, Mattie Fae; her genial husband, Charlie; and later, the meek son, "Little" Charlie. Next up are the three Weston daughters: First is reserved, unmarried Ivy, who teaches at a local college and bears the brunt of her mother's offensiveness. Next, Barbara, the eldest daughter, arrives from Colorado with husband, Bill, and 14-year-old pot head daughter Jean and quickly tries to assess and seize control of the situation. Finally, the youngest, Karen, arrives with boyfriend Steve, whose sleaziness becomes ever more apparent.

Part of the mastery of August: Osage County is that even as we watch this horribly dysfunctional family come apart at the seams-often hilariously-our schadenfreude is checked by the resemblances we see to our own families. When Ivy, Barbara, and Karen sit around late at night, having a drink and laughing hysterically at old stories-particularly one about their mother's heroic attempts to smuggle pills into a rehabilitation center inside her vagina-the laughter, if not the particular scenario, feels easily familiar. As a result, when the conversations lead to revelations and painful accusations, we feel the pain as if it's our own.

Another strength is that every time the audience thinks this play has revealed its biggest secrets, had its twist, taken its sharpest turns, there is always (at least) one more. It drives the play constantly forward and makes three and a half hours pass entertainingly and effortlessly.

The cast here is nothing short of spectacular, led by Linda Thorson as the merciless matriarch Violet-whom she shades with potent strains of fear, anger, and regret-and Everyman resident troupe member Deborah Hazlett as Barbara, who starts off as the sensible one, standing in for an audience bewildered by this strange family, but who reveals herself so slowly and with such nuance that we barely realize who she's becoming, maybe giving us pause about who and what we might become as well.

If the play succeeds at cutting to the bone of our own insecurities as lonely people and as family members, it also speaks to us as Americans. This is borne out by Johnna, an outsider who mostly observes the insanity besetting the Weston family without comment, leaving us to imagine how she feels about this group of entitled, self-involved people whom she swears to never leave because "I need the work."

Given its track record and the impressive way Everyman has opened its new home, we can only assume that the company has treasures in store for years to come. Baltimore is lucky to have it.

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