By Eve Speer
Silver Summit Theatre and Utah Rep have joined forces to bring Utah audiences the first production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County. The play takes place in Oklahoma. Letts himself was born in Tulsa. His mother was a writer and his father was a college professor. He worked at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in his 20s and won a Tony Award for his portrayal of George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? According to the handy little chart on Wikipedia, the show won just about every award out there when it came to Broadway in 2008, including the Pulitzer.
Last week was a difficult week. Robin Williams’ passing rocked all of us. And then a dear friend lost her young son on the same day, in the same way. Let me tell you, the last thing I wanted to do was go and see a dramatic play about hard times on the Plains Friday night. I have criticized plays for being too long. I have complained to directors for not cutting the play. Frankly, as theatre goers, we get a little lazy—wanting faster, funnier, bigger dance numbers, lights, cameras, lots and lots of action! As a spoiled little brat, I showed up at the theatre in my yoga pants and bought candy in order to keep myself satisfied throughout the production. I expected no surprises. I had seen a brilliant production of the play at the Kennedy Center back in 2010 with the magnificent Estelle Parsons. I had seen the movie. I expected no surprises and hoped that I would be able to enjoy the show enough to write a courteous and thoughtful review.
The time flew by. I was carried away. I was surprised. I was touched. I laughed, I gasped, I cried. It was an incredible evening of theatre.
The set, designed by Kevin Dudley, was sparse and functional. It was utilitarian and the levels allowed the actors the room they needed to run to and from one another. The lighting, designed by Martin Alcocer, was limited, but not limiting. The focus flew from one scene on a bench upstairs, to the kitchen table—helping our eyes put together the pieces of the story. The costumes, designed by Nancy Susan Cannon, were a perfect contribution to the story. Producers David Hanson, Michelle Rideout, and Johnny Hebda assembled a talented team of designers.
I had never seen a show directed by Mark Fossen, but dagnabbit, I loved him from the start. The beginning of this show sets the tone for the entire production. It requires a light touch. The events themselves are sad, the characters are not. More than anything, the characters are fighting for that lightness of being we all imagine everyone else possesses. It is this struggle against the dark that makes the time fly by for the audience. We see ourselves and we laugh at the darkness, in the darkness. And only sweet Johnna looks on at our shared insanity with a little touch of horror. Richard Scharine, playing Beverly Weston, brought just the right amount of levity to the opening scene. Tamara Howell was perfectly down to earth as the new housekeeper Johnna. The first time you see Teresa Sanderson’s Violet Weston, I promise you will find yourself on the edge of your seat, just anticipating some sort of surprise. She is both mysterious and obvious. And she never lets up. Every scene is a revelation.
As the play unfolds, we meet the Weston sisters—practical Barbara, played by April Fossen, lost Ivy, played by Michele Rideout, and dreaming Karen, played by Melanie Nelson. These actors delivered performances that were complicated and provoking. You hate and love each of them for everything they remind you about yourself and all your favorite women.
Sallie Cooper and Daniel Torrence play the visiting aunt and uncle. Their comedic timing was absolutely perfect at the beginning, which only grew into a beautiful cocktail of passion and regret. (Please realize I could type this about every single character on the stage.)
The men in this play covered the gamut of American men in the same way that the sisters appear to cover every particular type of American woman you’ll come across. Bill Fordham plays Barbara’s husband, the professor; intelligent, charming, and flawed. Joe Crinch plays Karen Weston’s fiancée Steve Heidebrecht, a driven entrepreneur playboy. Stein Erickson plays Little Charles Aiken, a well-intentioned disappointment. Allen Smith plays Deon Gibeau, the trusty sheriff.
Barbara and Bill’s daughter Jean is played with vivacity and intelligence by Anne Louise Brings. Her storyline is complicated and she doesn’t make it easier for us by making simple choices.
Nothing about this production is simple. In every moment, they make the difficult choice. They choose funny, when the obvious answer is pathos. As a result, audience members are carried away in the story as we try to unravel and understand.
The story is perfect. This cast is brilliant, and the director leads us on an unexpected journey. I encourage everyone to see this beautiful piece of American Theatre in this intimate new space. There’s nothing better than good theatre. And this is good theatre. If you’re a theatre practitioner of any kind—make time to see this show. Good theatre will beget good theatre.
As a warning to parents: the play isn’t for kids. There is strong language and it has adult themes.
If you go, the show is playing at the new Sugar Space Warehouse, 130 S 800 West, not to be confused with the Sugar Space location in Sugarhouse. The show runs August 15-31st. For showtimes, visit http://silversummittheatre.org/. The space is small. It will sell out, so get your tickets online ahead of time.