Dysfunction is what’s for dinner in Greenlight Acting Studios’ production of August: Osage, County, Tracy Letts’ masterpiece about addiction and entrenched toxic family dynamics, which concludes its short two-week run at Stage Door Theatre on Sunday. Letts’ darkly comedic tragedy won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and multiple Tony Awards. It echoes classic American plays about poisonous kinships such as Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
So, almost any opportunity to see this rich work live onstage is worth grabbing, including this effort by Greenlight, a Kennesaw-based training school for actors, that feels at times like it’s hosting a showcase rather than an immersive theatrical experience. As such, this production boasts some well-executed performances but suffers from uneven pacing, making the already lengthy three-hour run-time slow to a trot when it should be galloping around the next dramatic bend.
Forrest Attaway’s direction often hits a bullseye on overtly humorous beats, such as a character’s phone blaring The Muppet Show theme during a somber blessing of the meal. But it evades the deeper and more piercing funny to be mined, the kind of funny that emerges as an uncomfortable tickle from knowing that things can’t possibly get worse, but then they do.
The story revolves around an anxiety-ridden summertime convening of the Weston family following the ominous disappearance of patriarch Beverly Weston (Alpha Trivette), a brilliant but melancholy poet in the late stages of alcoholism. Violet Weston (Rebecca Koon), his wife of many decades, is equally addicted to pills — which she strategically hides throughout the house — and to finding new and enhanced ways to make her children feel guilt and shame.
In one telling anecdote, one of Violet’s daughters, Barbara (a seething-under-the-surface Erin Bethea, also the owner of Greenlight), quips that their mom is a “serial parakeet killer” because Violet has shunned air conditioning altogether, which makes even tropical birds die from the heat. That oppressively high temperature becomes a kind of character, there along with Violet to goad the Westons to their breaking point.
Thankfully, theater veteran Koon delivers a spellbinding performance as the manipulative matriarch. Whirling through every room buoyed on substances and bitterness, she alternates between helpless and harmful, giving us brief flashes of self-awareness and regret, eliciting our empathy even when she’s behaving monstrously. The scenes that crackle most involve Koon and just about anyone she’s engaging with, particularly when she tells all three of her daughters the Bleakest Yuletide Story of all time.
Meanwhile, the quiet backbone of this story is Johnna (Amey Richards), the family’s recently hired housekeeper of Cheyenne heritage (who’s also one of very few authentically written indigenous characters in mainstream American theater). Grieving her own parents, Johnna sees things through sober, clear eyes. She’s also the only one who intervenes to protect the youngest family member at a critical moment.
Yet through it all, it’s crystal clear that Johnna’s putting up with the acidic shenanigans of this crazy, entitled, messed-up family because she really needs the job. Which is something that so many underpaid caretakers have to put up with.
Cutting and stark and hilarious at times, the play as it was written suggests that, for many people, the lure of biological family ties — or one character cynically puts it, “a random selection of cells” — can force humans to endure a whole lot of heartache. It’s just a pity that in bringing this human wreckage to life, Greenlight so often misses the joy to be had in so much misery.
Alexis Hauk is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She has written and edited for numerous newspapers, alt-weeklies, trade publications and national magazines including Time, the Atlantic, Mental Floss, Uproxx and Washingtonian