August: Osage County Review - Ahmanson Theater

"August: Osage County" Theater Review – 2008 Pulitzer and Tony Award-Winner comes to the Ahmanson Theater, at L.A.’s Music Center

Touring company of August: Osage County Photo:© Robert J. Saferstein

When Oscar-winning actress Estelle Parsons comes to town, “the industry,” as Los Angeles’s film and theater world is known, takes note.  Now that she’s here in the role of Violet, the bad-mouthed matriarch in the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning black comedy, “August: Osage County,” the news has spread. 

On September 9, at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles, the excitement was palpable as the opening-night audience found their seats and the lights dimmed on the Steppenwolf Theatre Company production, which runs for six weeks through October 18.

With numerous – and recognizable – film and stage actors in attendance that night, it seemed that many in the audience had read the reviews, heard the scuttlebutt and  knew what to expect. Primed for a wicked brew of smart dialogue, sharp-tongued come-backs and humiliating revelations, the audience rustled in anticipation, clapping at particularly funny scenes and laughing or groaning as the family’s darkest secrets and barely-repressed angst popped up unbidden. 

Estelle Parsons in August: Osage County. Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

“August: Osage County” is the story of the Weston clan, unwillingly drawn together when Violet’s husband Beverly Weston, the alcoholic family patriarch, suddenly disappears. Hearing the news, the Westons' three daughters and assorted in-laws and relatives meet at the family’s rural homestead in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. And it is here where the play takes place.

As the hours and days pass, proximity and long-buried resentments strip away the thin veneer of familial affection. Approaching the end of her life, Violet's withering sarcasm and cruel needling – and to a lesser extent, that of her sister Mattie Rae – gradually poisons the rest of the family. The legacy she carries from an abusive and violent childhood, is thus passed to the next generation. 

Though Parsons – she of the boots-scraping-on-gravel voice – is best known to television viewers as Rosanne’s mother, in the situation comedy “Rosanne,” the actress has had a long and prestigious career in the theater. The role of Violet is already a familiar one; Parsons played it when “ August: Osage County” appeared last year on Broadway. When the touring company was formed, she was asked to join the cast in the same role. 

(L to R) Estelle Parsons, Angelica Torn, Amy Warren and Shannon Cochran in August: Osage County Photo:© Robert J. Saferstein

With an experienced and professional cast, the present production is a particular pleasure to watch, with each of the performers fully inhabiting his or her role. Especially convincing are Violet’s three daughters. Shannon Cochran, as the eldest daughter Barbara, knows she’s adopted her mother’s attack-dog aggression, hates herself for it, but can’t find a way out. Angelica Torn, as Ivy, the second daughter who lives at home and copes with Violet daily, struggles to hang on to her own identify. Amy Warren, as the youngest daughter Karen, has perfected a bundle of frenzied mannerisms, adaptations designed to wall her family out.

(L to R) Angelica Torn, Libby George and Paul Vincent O’Connor in August: Osage County. Photo Credit: © Robert J. Saferstein

Sustained by rave reviews, many citing the darkly accurate depiction of a certain kind of American family, the play continues to draw audiences. But not everyone has been so enthusiastic, including the people that I sat with at the theater. 

Most felt that three and one-half hours, with two intermissions, was too long, especially when some scenes, including those at the end, were redundant. But the pace, often too slow to keep my attention, should be quickened.

Nor is there anything original, in films or television, about the subject: here, the dysfunctional family and its reliance on verbal combat. In fact, it’s a staple of many a sitcom, as viewers of many Showtime, HBO and network series know.

Nor does the liberal sprinkling of obscenities add to the play’s intelligence, or to our understanding of what the characters are really feeling.  When the actors repeatedly yell “f--- you,” and “god damn it,” and  “shit,” we know only that they’re in a rage. Frankly, cuss words don’t shock me; they bore me with their mediocrity.

Apparently there is some talk about making a movie of “ August: Osage County,” a transcription I look forward to. The play needs a stronger plot (with a beginning, middle and end), fewer cuss words and tighter action. Can the director squeeze it down into the usual two hours, standard for a film? I hope so.

Location:   Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre
The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A.

Dates & Times:  September 9 through October 18, 2009.
Starting: September 10:
Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sundays at 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.; No performances on Mondays.
Exceptions: Additional matinees on Thursdays, October 8 and 15 at 2 p.m.; No evening performances on Sundays, October 11 and 18.

Ticket Info:  Ticket Prices: $20 - $80
Call the Center Theatre Group Audience Services at
(213) 972-4400, or buy in person at the Center Theatre Group box office. Or visit Groups: (213) 972-7231.
Deaf community: Information & charge, TDD (213) 680-4017.




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