It has been the summer of dysfunctional families in Salt Lake theater. June gave us Pinnacle Acting Company’s incisive production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Now Silver Summit Theatre Company and Utah Repertory Theater Company are jointly staging the regional premiere of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize- and multiple Tony Award–winning “August: Osage County.”
Besides sharing stories of couples who feed on each other to hide from facing truths about themselves, both productions spin off of a visceral, soul-shattering performance by one of our strongest and most versatile Utah actors, Teresa Sanderson, who keeps getting better with every role she attacks.
“My wife takes pills, and I drink,” Beverly Weston (Richard Scharine) tells us as the play opens. This summation of the status quo is deceptively simple: What we want to know, what Letts tries to show us, is how these two people got to where they are — emotionally isolated from each other yet totally dependent on destructive patterns that bind them together at the same time that they drive them apart. And what impact does their behavior have on their three daughters and the other members of their family?
These are questions without easy answers, partly because these are clever, articulate characters who excel in deceiving themselves and others without even being aware of it. Violet (Sanderson), Beverly’s wife and the family matriarch, asks at one point, “Wouldn’t we be better off if we stopped lying and just told the truth?” This family has accumulated so much baggage over the years that, as Karen (Melanie Nelson), the youngest daughter, says, “You can’t move forward because you can’t stop thinking backward.”
An incredibly dense and intense play, “August” is laced with biting barbs of humor that make you laugh and then wonder why. It revolves around a family reunion precipitated by Beverly’s disappearance, the first time the three sisters have been together in years. The oldest, Barbara (April Fossen), is about to split from her husband, Bill (Daniel Beecher), and struggling to understand that situation and her rebellious teenage daughter, Jean (Anne Louise Brings). Ivy (Michele Rideout), the middle sister, stayed home and took responsibility for her parents and now wants her life back. Karen (Nelson) has ricocheted from one man to another in her search for identity; she thinks she has finally found happiness with Steve (Joe Crinch), who has his own hang-ups.
Violet’s chatterbox, caustic sister, Mattie Fae (Sallie Cooper), her long-suffering husband, Charlie (Daniel Torrence), and their inept, browbeaten son, Little Charles (Stein Erickson), have also arrived to offer support. The local sheriff (Allen Smith) and the Westons’ American Indian housekeeper (Tamara Howell) also get sucked into the family dynamic during a few sweltering summer days on the American Great Plains, a place Barbara calls “a state of mind, some spiritual affliction.”
Letts slices these characters open with the deftness of a surgeon, and when a couple of family secrets are unearthed in the third act, their effect is devastating. “August” has its gentler moments — a bittersweet scene where the sisters and Violet really talk to each other is a welcome calm before the next storm.
The performances are insightful and always on the same page, thanks to Mark Fossen’s direction, which tingles with tension. Fossen has a way of placing and moving actors so that relationships snap into focus. Sanderson is mesmerizing, and the other actors orbit around her like errant planets trying to escape from her gravity. April Fossen’s Barbara is especially powerful; like her mother, she is a strong-willed, angry woman desperately trying to maintain her footing.
The new Sugar Space venue is intimate but still a work in progress. Kevin Dudley’s farmhouse set is appropriately seedy and rundown, and Martin Alcocer does his best to define acting areas with the rudimentary lighting. Nancy Susan Cannon’s costumes are straightforward and unsophisticated.
“August: Osage County” is not a comfortable play to watch, but Letts’ skillful writing turns what could be gargoyles into complex human beings we can recognize and understand. This production does more than justice to its no-holds-barred portrait of family relationships.