August: Osage County
Erickson Theatre off Broadway, 1524 Harvard Ave., 329-1050, balagantheatre.org. $20–$25. 8 p.m. Thurs.–Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends April 27.
The movies have their thrills and moments of excellence, but only the stage can provide a rapid-descent spelunking into the depths of what drives us all. August: Osage County, which won both the Pulitzer and Tony for best drama in 2008, is that kind of play. Tracy Letts’ text is a surefooted and unblinking examination of the ties that bind and the transgressions that rip people apart. It’s a sad, funny, horrific tale, told with compassion and a ferocious commitment to honesty by Balagan Theatre director Shawn Belyea, with a cast as fine as has ever trod a Seattle stage.
Letts’ basic story is as old as the Greeks. Adult children return home at a time of family crisis, and we learn what they already know—why they love each other, the secrets they’ve kept (or think they have), and the limits of kinship.
In this regional premiere, the Weston clan is led by poet/patriarch/drunk Beverly (Charles Leggett) and his pill-popping wife Violet (Shellie Shulkin), a woman given to flights of semi-lucid fancy. Daughters Barbara (Terri Lazzara), Ivy (Caitlin Frances), and Karen (Kate Jaeger) get along well enough at the outset, but like a high-stakes game of psychosexual Jenga, old insults combine with new injuries until their sisterhood buckles under the strain.
Extended family members Mattie Fae (Lisa Viertel) and her husband Charlie (John Q. Smith) add fuel to the fire with quarrels over their ne’er-do-well son, Little Charlie (David Goldstein). Then there’s Barbara’s estranged husband Bill (Chris Ensweiler), trying to keep up appearances while their daughter (Devynne Gannon) navigates puberty and inappropriate sexual advances through a haze of pot smoke.
All the technical elements are perfectly in sync here, and despite the three-hour run time (with two intermissions), the show remains 95 percent lean. There are laughs aplenty early on, but ultimately August: Osage County takes a heavy toll. Still, if you’re a theatergoer who grows weary of shows that whiz by as little more than pleasant distractions, Letts’ dramedy is an exception to the rule. It’s the best play I have seen in decades, crammed full of staggering moments of surprise and performances that will haunt you for years to come.