In a Pulitzer Prize-winning play with a long laundry list of secrets and lies revealed, the most intriguing element about Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” is what is left unspoken.
What was it that led the long-married Westons — wife Violet and husband Beverly — into a bottomless pit of mutual addiction? Balagan Theatre’s production of Letts’ bleak and exhausting dramedy opens with the story’s most interesting character, the courtly, scholarly Beverly (a brief but memorable turn by Charles Leggett), plainly explaining to a prospective housekeeper (Jordi Montes) that he is an alcoholic and Violet is hooked on pills.
The way Beverly pours drinks in his tiny library while Violet (a shattering performance by Shellie Shulkin) stumbles and babbles demonstrates how bad things are in this family home outside Tulsa. Yet nowhere in three acts, wisely, is there a causal event described: in life, sometimes people just decay from cumulative losses and mistakes.
Beverly’s career disappointments as a poet and Violet’s bouts with cancer and mysterious demons are just the tip of their slow-motion corrosion, though more will be exposed following Beverly’s offstage suicide during act one.
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The gathering of the Westons’ three grown daughters and other extended family members in the house over subsequent days yields more — and more wearying — explanations about the influence of the elder couple’s sins on subsequent generations. Infidelity, low self-esteem, emotional abandonment, incest and general acting out absorb this sorry lot, though Letts offers grace moments, too, such as a loving exchange between father and son (John Q. Smith and David Goldstein).
Letts’ wit and some strong scenes — fully engaged by Balagan’s often-stirring cast — keep this play nimble and fresh. Shawn Belyea directs intimate exchanges and a big family dinner alike as rich in nuance and potential explosiveness.
Yet other than Beverly and Violet, no one in “August: Osage County” is particularly interesting apart from crisis and failure. If every family is a crucible, then, yes, we all deserve pity. But that’s not enough to hang worthy characters on.
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org