‘Darkly Funny’ Anguish in ‘August’

Theater Review by Michael Morain

If you can’t say anything nice, well, pull up a chair and make yourself at home. You’ll fit right in with the family in “August: Osage County,” onstage through March 19 at the Des Moines Social Club.

But don’t expect to get a word in edgewise. When the Westons get together, you’d be wise to just keep quiet while they pick each other apart like their chicken dinner, served with heaps of jealousy, resentment, guilt and—since this is family, after all—a small crusty dish of leftover love.

Directed by Matthew McIver, this darkly funny three-course drama is easily the heftiest homegrown show we’ll see all season. It’s three hours long, with two intermissions, and draws from the combined resources of both StageWest and Repertory Theatre of Iowa, two deeply gifted companies that announced on Friday (finally) that they plan to merge into a single group called the Iowa Stage Theatre Company, with their first seven-show season starting in September. (They’ll unveil the lineup March 18 at the Social Club.)

We can only hope the two companies get along better than the characters they present in “August”—juicy roles for which local actors have been sharpening their knives ever since the show’s national tour visited the Des Moines Civic Center in 2010. The Broadway production won a pile of 2008 Tony Awards, thanks in large part to the cutting-edge, Pulitzer-winning script by Tracy Letts. The much-hyped but oddly muddled Hollywood version that came along in 2013 featured none other than Meryl Streep, surrounded by the likes of Julia Roberts and Benedict Cumberbatch.

In the current show, the Streep role belongs to the formidable Kim Grimaldi, who plays unshrinking Violet Weston with a mix of batty incoherence and wily malice. But to call it a “role” is misleading: It’s actually several characters rolled into a single body and sprinkled with pills—uppers, downers and plenty in between. The withered matriarch stumbles into the first act like a babbling toddler but pulls herself together later, when it’s time get on her family’s nerves.

“I’m just truth-telling,” she says, with feigned innocence. “Some people get antagonized by the truth.”

And you can hardly blame them. During this particular muggy summer at the old home place in northeast Oklahoma, Violet sprays her truth like shotgun pellets at anyone who happens to cross her path.

Her three daughters bear the brunt of it, and frankly, they’re easy targets. The oldest is a headstrong college professor (Karla Kash, in fine form), careening toward divorce. The middle daughter is a librarian (Kerry Skram), who is secretly dating a not-so-distant relative, and the youngest (Alissa Tschetter-Siedschlaw) feels guilty for ditching the family in favor of a sleazy fiancé in Florida, especially when dear old Ma is battling mouth cancer. Together the three Weston sisters worry their mother is slowly dying—maybe too slowly.

The not-so-innocent bystanders include Violet’s bossy sister (scene-stealer Nancy Zubrod) and Violet’s brilliant, prickly and booze-pickled husband (Richard Maynard, witty and wise in a terrific opening scene), whose mysterious disappearance is what prompts this whole horrendous family reunion in the first place.

The show’s three hours—which fly, by the way—follow the roofline of the Westons’ cluttered split-level house (designed by Jay Michael Jagim and dimly lit by Jim Trenberth). The action starts low, climbs to a peak during that calamitous chicken dinner in the second act, and then descends toward a quiet but hardly peaceful resolution. As the (fake) cigarette smoke thickens, the only thing that clears up is the certainty that in this family, like every other, nothing is as simple as it seems on the surface.

“It’s not cut and dried,” the youngest daughter points out. “It lives where everything lives—somewhere in the middle.”

It’s funny, really: All this truth-telling makes you appreciate the value of the little white lie.

“August: Osage County” repeats at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through March 19 at the Des Moines Social Club’s Kum & Go Theater. Find details and tickets at rtiowa.com or stagewestiowa.com.

 

 

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