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August: Osage County Production Review

by Trish Morgan

Cumberland Theatre Continues its 34th Main Stage season with the award-winning dark comedy “August: Osage County”, which will continue this weekend for the final four performances - Thurs-Sat, 8 pm and final curtain on Sunday at 2 pm.

Written by Tracy Letts, the play won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for drama and has been produced in regional theaters all over the world since its premiere at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago.

The play centers around the Weston family, brought together after their patriarch, world-class poet and alcoholic Beverly Weston, disappears. The matriarch, violent, depressed and addicted to pain pills and truth-telling, is joined by her three daughters and their problematic lovers, who harbor their own deep secrets. There is also the sister Mattie Fae and her family, well-trained in the Weston family art of cruelty, and finally, the observer of the chaos, the young Cheyenne housekeeper Johnna, who was hired by Beverly just before his disappearance. Holed-up in the large family estate in Osage County, Oklahoma, tensions heat up and boil over in the ruthless August heat. With rich insight and brilliant humor, Letts paints a vivid portrait of a Midwestern family at a turning point.

“August: Osage County” debuted on Broadway in 2007 and played an open run at the music box theater. It went on to win both the Drama Desk award and the Tony award for outstanding play. In 2013, a film version was released featuring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Cumberland Theatre features a vanished father, a pill-popping mother, and three sisters who harbor shady little secrets. When the large Weston family unexpectedly reunited after dad disappeared, their Oklahoman family homestead explodes in a maelstrom of truths and uncertain secrets. Mix in violence, the drugged-up, scathingly acidic matriarch, and you’ve got a major play that unflinchingly and uproariously exposes the dark side of the Midwestern American family.

This production is being directed by the fabulous Nicole Mattis, who is the chair of the theatre and dance program at Frostburg State University. She performed such magic with this cast! Nicole had a terrific handle on each character’s persona, and the actors under her direction measured up to Nicole’s high standards. What a coup having Nicole in the director’s chair for this deep, dark look into this family’s core.

Here is the summation of one of the best casts I have ever seen on the stage. Julie Herber, who played Violet, was a powerhouse of an actor. So expressive, so “Meryl Streep”, so deep into her cigarette-smoking, pill-popping, painfully-honest character that every single person in the audience was blown away. Julie - you are a star, and you were surrounded by the incredible talents of Valentine, Rowley, Wicker, Baughman and Halmos - stage veterans who have such stage presence and talent for grasping a character and going full-out. Julie - they all helped brighten your star on stage.

I’ve seen almost all of the actors who are in this play on stage before. With this show, Mattis has somehow drawn out the most intimate, deep rooted truths and secrets from each of these actors so that their very souls were exposed and raw.

Tom Valentine spent several weeks, as each actor did, studying character and in his case, growing raggedy facial hair to bring Beverly Watson to life. This is one of the greatest ensemble performances I have ever seen. It turns funny, heartwarming and sad, and it is a stellar display of top-notch acting.

As it turns out, Valentine’s role was short-lived in the beginning of the play, and it turns out he’s the lucky one. After a few days of infighting and bloody backstabbing, it’s easy to see why anyone trapped in this domestic hell-hole would rather drown themselves than sit down to a family dinner. All of the roles in this play call for leaving nothing at the table. There’s little relief. This makes for a powerful production that leaves you aghast, mouth hanging open at the ferocity with which families can hurt one another. It also leaves you so fatigued and spent, it’s hard to understand why one should continue to watch it all any longer.

When you watch this play, you’re peering in on moments that are so intimate and painful that we really shouldn’t see them. The truth is, the characters don’t want to be part of it either. Everyone here in this play has pain, and while we join these characters for a short time, it’s easy to see that the cycles of lies, distrust, and abuse go back for generations – clinging to this family like the hot summer dust of the empty plains that surround them.

This review would not be complete without mentioning the extraordinary talents of set designer Rhett Wolford, who has out-done himself once again. How he comes up with the design ideas in such a small amount of time and brings the set to life for each production is absolutely amazing. The family fight scenes are worth an outstanding mention, as well, and Darrel Rushton, Brian Records and Seth Thompson made everything look so real, and it’s hard to believe it was all choreographed.

The cast consists of Tom Valentine, Beverly Weston; Alexis Geyer, Johnna; Julie Herbert, Violet Weston; Nicole Halmos, Mattie Fae; Jim Wicker, Charlie; Samantha Kennedy, Ivy Weston; Kimberli Rowley, Barbara Fordham; Matt Baughman, Bill Fordham; Cailin Peluso, Jean Fordham; Seth Thompson, Sheriff Gilbeau; Shea-Mikal Green, Karen Weston; Bill Dennison, Little Charles; Mike Virts, Steve Heidebrecht.

Production staff working with Director Mattis is as follows: Hayden Kline, stage manager; Elizabeth Mudge, assistant stage manager and wardrobe assistant; Rhett Wolford, set design; Jennifer Clark, costume design; Megan O’Brien, lighting design; Eric Ringler, props master; Trevor McCabe, lighting tech; Darrel Rushton, fight director; Brian Records, assistant fight director; Seth Thompson, fight captain.

There will be two 10-minute intermissions at each performance, as the play runs a little longer than most productions. Because the drama and the comedy are so moving and these actors bring us right on stage with us into their dysfunction, you won’t notice that you sat a little longer than other plays you may have attended here.

Please note the show contains violence, adult situations and strong language, and may not be suitable for all audiences. Parental discretion is encouraged.

For ticket information and reservations, call 301-759-4990 or visit Cumberland Theatre on Facebook.

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