Monday, February 20, 2012

Bitter Pill

Bitter Pill
By Tom Wachunas
“Our appetite for schadenfreude is ravenous, and misery’s best company is a hungry voyeur.”
- June Godwit, from “Post-structuralism: Flacid, yet absurd?” –

I realize that reviewing the production of “August: Osage County,” currently on the venerable North Canton Playhouse mainstage, might seem to be a recanting of my ARTWACH post on February 12, filled as it was with moralizing about gratuitous profanity and otherwise vapid content in our entertainment. It’s not. Frankly, if beforehand I had known more about the sheer preponderance of insouciant gutter-speak that permeates Tracy Letts’ 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a numbingly dysfunctional Oklahoma family - or for that matter the play’s stifling, dyspeptic aura - I likely would not have committed to seeing it.

That said, it’s not the dark and tragic narrative content of this production that makes it so compelling. For that, all one need do is sample television news magazines or the talk show circuit to vicariously experience the seamy undersides and consequences of toxic human relationships. So no, this play is neither particularly original nor revelatory in its imitation of life, Pulitzer Prize notwithstanding. It is, on the other hand, eminently memorable for the explosive performances delivered by the excellent 13-member cast under the direction of Ted Paynter.

Most impressive is their consistently sustained, riveting dramatic intensity and focus over a very long stretch. The evening runs about three hours (with two intermissions), and for all of that, scenes move along at a reasonably brisk pace. Still, such an indulgence in lengthy play writing seemed largely unnecessary in this story. The grimy message was received in half the time.

The play opens with Beverly (Bill Brown), the alcoholic poet- patriarch of the Weston family in the process of hiring Johnna, a gentle-hearted Native American (Shannon Jamison), to take care of his addict wife ailing from mouth cancer. “My wife takes pills and I drink,” Brown intones with cavalier glibness, “That’s the bargain we’ve struck.” The tone is set, and it’s soon clear we’re in for a wild unraveling of family pathologies that make the case studies from such luminaries as Eugene O’Neil, Tennessee Williams, or Arthur Miller seem sunny by comparison. Here, father proceeds to disappear, prompting an emergency extended family reunion.

Reunion? More like an Oklahoma tornado, flinging about a blistering detritus of resentment and rage. Damaged goods indeed, this is a family united by some of the ugliest common denominators of human behavior, including substance addiction, infidelity, divorce, and incest. Sure, there are deliciously ‘humorous’ interludes, some provided by the vociferous bickering of Mark Adkins as Uncle Charlie and Stephanie Hester as Aunt Mattie, others by the chatty Kelly A. Tanner as one of the three Weston daughters, Karen. And there are a few moments of genuine tenderness. But all these are quickly swallowed up, like so many mood-altering pharmaceuticals, by the unrelenting cynicism, hubris, and emotional bloodletting that drives the characters’ interactions. They’re completely clueless as to finding lasting solutions on this sweltering August battlefield.

And speaking of pharmaceuticals, Donna Rasicci’s portrayal of Weston matriarch, Violet, who ingests pills like candy, turns in a tour-de-force performance of astonishing fluidity. Like flipping a switch, she alternates between passages of searingly honest assessment of herself and family, and her pathetic, howling disconnects from reality.

Similarly, Marci Sailing Lesho is utterly startling and every bit as darkly commanding in her character of eldest daughter, Barbara. Bitter and exasperated over her failed marriage (among other things), at one point she tells her all-too- precocious, pot-smoking teenage daughter, Jean (Andrea Hartman), “Thank God we can’t tell the future. We’d never get out of bed.”

But no prescient interventions are forthcoming, Divine or otherwise. While this unabashedly bold descent into domestic degeneracy is assuredly epic, it is also neither heroic nor hopeful. I emerged bludgeoned, not blessed.

“August: Osage County” on the North Canton Playhouse mainstage, located in Hoover High School, 525 Seventh Street NE, North Canton. Performances are Friday, March 2, and Saturday, March 3, at 8:00 pm, and Sunday March 4 at 2:30 pm. Tickets are $13 and can be ordered by calling (330) 494 – 1613.

Photo, courtesy North Canton Playhouse: Left to Right – cast members Mark Adkins, Tara Shooks, Shannon Jamison, Donna Rasicci (on couch), Marci Sailing Lesho, and Ross Rhodes (background)


Martha W. said...

Knowing what this play did to you I thought you wrote about it extremely well. Thank God that one is over and on to more entertaining light hearted plays and entertainment.

Your loving fan always,

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