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August: Osage County — This Ain’t The Huxtable Family

by Karen Tortora-Lee on June 3, 2009

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I’m here to set the record straight. I’ve spent years thinking that Phylicia Rashad‘s career was based on giving life to characters that sprung forth from Bill Cosby‘s head, the straight (wo)man standing patiently by as William Henry Cosby, Jr. Ed.D. gave in to one of his patented Cosby-eque tirades.  After all, she played his wife, lawyer Claire Huxtable, for eight seasons on The Cosby Show, then signed on for the gig again, playing Ruth Lucas on Cosby. She took Claire Huxtable on the road and over to  A Different World to visit her “daughter” when ratings required her to do so, and she had no issue with voicing the mother of Little Bill, Cosby’s saccharine animation for the 3-and-under set.  She’d even appeared in an episode of The Cosby Mysteries.  (Ever hear of it?  Me neither).  Almost more stereotyped than Henry (who?) “The Fonz” (oh …) Winkler, she even Claire Huxtable’d her way through those Jenny Craig commercials.  I know she’s had other roles, but her main body of work remained so uninteresting to me that I never bothered to catch her in A Raisin In The Sun or anything else, quite frankly.   So it wasn’t really on my radar that she won a Tony … or even that she was up for one.

And then I spent a night at August:Osage County.  Never, and I mean EVER, have I ever done anyone a greater disservice.  Phylicia, if you’re out there, I apologize.  I more than apologize, I owe you a steak dinner.  I owe all the Huxtables (even you, Grown Up Rudy) a steak dinner.  Because Phylicia Rashad, you left me ashamed at my small-mindedness, humbled by your skill and in awe of your complete transformation.  You really ARE a great actress.

August: Osage County (written by Tracy Letts and directed by Anna D. Shapiro) starts out slowly and a bit sadly, as Patriarch Beverly Weston (John Cullum, brilliantly thoughtful and strong-voiced as ever) tells young perspective housekeeper Johnna Monevata (this performance unfortunately featured the underwhelming understudy Kristina Valada-Viars) about his peculiar setup: a house kept in darkness so day can’t be distinguished from night; a habit of drinking that has long since moved from “socially” to “till passed out”, a wife so chock full of pills that every word past a certain point in the day is unintelligible, and a family that doesn’t come around very much … though is it any wonder?  Beverly is asking the young girl to be a live-in, to just help them keep their status quo.  She takes the job; she needs the money.

Soon enough Violet Weston (Phylicia Rashad) comes on the scene blathering a hello through a drug haze, demanding things rudely and clumsily knocking things over.  Beverly seems unfazed, this is just how things are now.  He allows her this wreckage of self because oh, hadn’t he mentioned?  She’s got The Cancer.  So maybe it’s better this way.

All too soon (because I LOVE John Cullum) Bev disappears which brings his family out of the woodwork and back to the family home.  Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (big, beautiful, boozy-voiced Elizabeth Ashley who shimmers through every scene and brings layers of grit and pathos to her role) Maddie’s husband Charlie (Guy Boyd), and Violet’s middle daughter Ivy (Sally Murphy) are first on the scene.  Soon to follow is eldest daughter Barbara (Amy Morton) with her own fractured family in tow: estranged husband Bill (Frank Wood) and precocious 14 year old daughter Jean (Anne Berkowitz).  Thrown into the mix a little later on is youngest daughter Karen (Mariann Mayberry) who’s dragged along her inappropriately creepy fiance Steve (Brian Kerwin) who immediately is unlikable, and finally helpless cousin “Little” Charles (Michael Milligan) who is called a loser so often that it’s impossible to believe that he can really succeed at anything, what with all those negative tapes playing in his head day and night.

The Weston clan puts the diss in dysfunctional; their home explodes in rage and insult so often that when there’s a lull in the fighting you literally lean back, readying yourself for the next outburst which comes soon enough, and only proves that family fighting can always get bigger, uglier, and more violent.  Problems abound so much that they’re doubling up … not one but several kinds of drug use/abuse, several kinds of deviant sexual behavior, several kinds of unhappy marriages (in fact, they’re all on the unhappy scale somewhere, even the marriages that haven’t happened yet). Which isn’t to say that this isn’t a comedy of sorts.

Moments of laughter are peppered into the drama as liberally as makes sense; and the story gets SO dark that at times all you can do is laugh at it.  Father’s missing, Mother’s hooked on pills, Daughter Ivy is dating Mystery Guy (who, when his identity is revealed, is all the less advisable), Daughter Barbara is trying to handle her own failing marriage and control her wild child daughter Jean whose pot-smoking habit is encouraged by her father … a father who has left his marriage in order to date a girl closer to his daughter’s age than his wife’s.  Their sister Karen is a motor mouth, too self-referential and self-observant but also completely self-doubting and at times self-hating. Karen’s fiance, Steve, whom she adores couldn’t be less worthy of adoring … he’s lacking any sort of depth or color except for the fact that he’s a cheat and a pervert.  So with all this built-in angst the audience finds itself laughing uproariously at lines that, anywhere else, would seem mean or harsh.  Lines such as “Eat your fucking fish, Mom!” and “I hate you too, you little freak!

There’s a point where August: Osage County felt like it was really June: New York City, because while I was pretty certain I’d entered the theatre in June … I was almost sure it would be July by the time I got out.  This play is loooooooooooooooooooong, coming in at 3.5 hours (with two very necessary 10-minute intermissions).  Not to say that it’s long and dull, more like it is long and invasive; entering into your body through your senses and spreading throughout until you’re pulled into the family whether you like it or not.  While that may sound harsh, it’s not altogether untrue.  That doesn’t mean this play isn’t brilliantly done, it’s just quite simply emotionally draining and for anyone with an empathetic bone in their body, it’s almost obliterating.  Sounds dark?  It is.

However the entire cast sinks their teeth into this family and performs this play with gusto; and the simple truth of the matter is that nothing is more satisfying than watching Phylicia Rashad curse a blue streak, throw her dinner on the floor, and incite a family fight that’s only millimeters shy of bloodshed.  Winner of the 2008 Tony Award for Best Play and Pulitzer Prize for Drama, August: Osage County has been around for a while but, come summer, the show will be heading out to cities across the country as it sets out on a National Tour.  See it before it’s gone and while Phylicia Rashad is still at the helm and in town.

August: Osage County is currently playing at the Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue).  Click here for ticket information.  To find out more, visit the official website.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Running Time is 3 hours and 20 minutes, including 2 intermissions.
All evening performances start at 7:30PM except for Tuesday evenings which are 7:00PM and Saturday evenings which are at 8:00PM.

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