Probably no one worries about whether a play is a comedy or a drama except critics and people who teach theatre. For the average person, the question is, is it funny or not? Having not so long ago gone through the St. Louis Theatre Clrcle Awards annual process of nominating and voting, wherein we – among other things – have to decide on the comedy/drama question, I found myself pondering that as I watched the first act of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Is it a drama or a comedy?
Letts would probably be the first to say he’s not a guy who writes about pies in the face and happy families uttering epigrams. Nope. Dysfunction R Us is his franchise, and it’s not subtle. But that turns out to actually be part of the fun. It’s an Oklahoma family of three daughters. Drinking Dad (Larry Dell) and pill-popping mom (Kari Ely) battle more or less incessantly. It probably was like that for years. One daughter (Emily Baker) still lives at home, the eldest sister (Meghan Baker) has married and moved away, and the third sister (Rachel Fenton) pretty much never comes home from Miami.
Dad’s just hired a housekeeper (Wendy Renee Farmer), and pretty soon he doesn’t come home. He’s done this before, but this is longer than usual, so mom calls in the girls. They arrive with a husband (David Wassilak), a daughter (Bridgette Bassa) and, from the Miami branch, a fiancee (Drew Battles). Mom’s nasty enough with Dad and the daughter (Emily Baker) that lives nearby, but when the crew pulls in, she goes into full battle mode. Even her younger sister (Kim Furlow) and the sister’s long-suffering husband (William Roth) fall into the family’s default style of sniping, lying, manipulating and generally making everyone’s life chaotic.
Letts’ writing is terrific. His characters are nasty, funny and frequently insightful. So bear with what sounds like it could be an unpleasant evening and steer straight into the tornado. It’s too fascinating not to. There’s a tour de force performance from Ely, creating a mother who’s so wild that “neurotic” would be a considerable upgrade. Meghan Baker’s daughter shows a slow, carefully wrought falling apart as the play progresses and she copes with her mother as well as her own family’s problems. The quiet middle sister, Emily Baker who engages daily in battles with her mother in order to protect her privacy, barely smolders but hints of steam emerge in her performance before erupting.
Good work, too from Bassa as the 14-year-old and Battles as her aunt’s secretly slimy fiance. Furlow lets fly her character in a memorable scene that changes the game from comic relief. Pretty much every one indulges in (pick two or more) smoking, drinking, cursing, adulterizing, envy, greed or gluttony, thanks to some apple pie.
Wayne Salomon’s direction never lets the audience rest, once the steam builds up. The play has two intermissions, pretty logical considering the pacing here, to give the audience a chance to recover. Great fun with the set from Patrick Huber, three levels, and a lot of spots for to-and-fro-ing, with lighting from Dalton Robinson’s design helping the flow of the story.
August: Osage County
through April 30
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
360 N. Boyle