|Michael Rouches and Jeananne Kelsey|
By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
As the Wall Street Journal noted in a recent article, Theatre in the Grove is taking a rather large risk by offering as big and provocative a show as August: Osage County in Forest Grove. This is not exactly a family-friendly community theater offering – over three hours of jarring drama laced with copious doses of vulgar language and unbelievably vile behavior. It’s an intensely disturbing play, and despite the frequent (dark) humor, the evening left us emotionally drained and pathetically eager to hurry home to the uncomplicated adoration of our dogs. This reaction is not an indictment of the production, but recognition of the powerful performances we had just seen.
Any attempt to neatly summarize the plot would be wasted – there’s enough drama and trauma in the play’s tale of the Westons, a thoroughly dysfunctional Oklahoma family, to fill a season of General Hospital. The events take place in the course of a few weeks in the large Weston homestead, where the entire clan assembles to deal with the disappearance (and ultimately, suicide) of the family’s alcoholic patriarch, Beverly Weston. Over the course of the play, the dialogue and action lead us through decades of drug abuse, alcoholism, molestation, infidelity, incest, blackmail, and emotional cruelty, leaving a group of twisted victims who eventually, frantically scrabble to escape the family home.
The role of Violet Weston (Pruella Centers), the pill-poppin’ manipulative momma of the clan, defines and dominates the entire show. From the moment that Centers appears, stumbling and mumbling down the staircase like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, she doesn’t merely steal scenes, she owns them. As the show evolves, she strips away the overtones of pathos to reveal herself as a great, lurking spider who uses her web (the entire house) to ensnare and humiliate all who enter.
Of course, Centers is not alone on the stage – she is surrounded by a stunning group of actors who, even on preview night, did not miss a beat, a line, or a nuance. With a cast of 13 seasoned performers, neither space nor the availability of appropriate adjectives allows us to recognize all of them. However, a few people demand special notice. Carly Wasserstein (as Johnna Monevata, the Native American housekeeper) projects a calm, grounded persona that provides welcome relief from the mangled psyches that surround her. She reminds the audience that there is another world outside the Weston web, and she brings a little sanity into the household. Jeananne Kelsey (as Violet’s 14-year-old granddaughter Jean) and Michael Rouches (as the sleazily pedophilic fiancé of one of the Weston daughters) add fuel to the family bonfire in two disturbingly believable scenes. Rouches radiates unctuous charm layered thinly over his character’s predatory nature, and Kelsey beautifully captures the clueless adolescent spaciness of her role.
Director, set and sound designer Zachary Centers is the (literal and figurative) architect whose vision has brought August: Osage County to Theater in the Grove. His spectacular set creates the elaborate Petri dish in which the Weston family pathology flourishes, and his brilliant casting decisions provide the necessary fodder.
Obviously, this show is not for everybody. Persons of delicate sensibilities are well advised to steer clear of the strong language and stronger stories of Osage County – smelling salts and fainting couches are not provided. However, audiences open to a thought-provoking, gut wrenching evening of dark humor and darker themes should flock to the production.
August: Osage County runs at Forest Grove’s Theatre in the Grove through Sunday, March 16th with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. on Sunday.