This small south Arkansas city was once one of the top oil producers in the nation.
Midway through the Arkansas Repertory Theatre's "August: Osage County," the aged, pill-addicted matriarch of the Weston family denigrates her middle- aged daughter, Ivy, for being too plain to attract a husband. "All women need makeup. Don't let anybody tell you different. The only woman who was pretty enough to go without makeup was Elizabeth Taylor," Violet Weston snaps at the perpetually cowed Ivy, "and she wore a ton. Sit up straight."
Intentionally or not, the line can't help but evoke Taylor's role in the 1966 film adaptation of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" "August: Osage County" owes an undeniable debt to Edward Albee's mesmerizingly brutal (and grotesquely funny) journey into the heart of a violently imploding marriage. Both plays run to three hours long, with two intermissions, and both revolve around the union of an embittered academic and his acidic wife. Both document a family dynamic as toxic and combustible as a chemical spill, in which affection and decency are sacrificed on the pyre of truth-telling. But whereas Albee limited himself to a cast of four, "August: Osage County" author Tracy Letts traps three generations of an extended Oklahoma clan in a sweltering home on the Great Plains to let their tragicomic disaster unspool. It makes you thankful George and Martha were infertile.
The plot is set in motion when Violet's husband, Beverly, the Weston patriarch and a once-great poet, abruptly vanishes. This prompts the couple's three adult daughters to return home to attend to their mother, along with Violet's sister, Mattie Fae, and their respective husbands, boyfriends and children. Among them is Barbara, the eldest Weston daughter, whose complex love-hate relationship with Violet frames the story throughout. Old tensions surface immediately. Secrets are revealed, with the help of a variety of intoxicants — booze, pot, Dilaudid, repressed guilt, filial sadism — and then even darker secrets are revealed beneath. The house boils; not only does Violet insist on keeping the home un-air-conditioned, she also covers the windows at all times so as to blur the lines between day and night. Some families pull together in times of crisis. Others, like the Westons, fall ever further apart.
What binds together the Rep's production is the force of the acting, which, with a couple of minor exceptions, runs from very good to purely spectacular. In particular, Susanne Marley delivers an unbelievable performance as Violet, shapeshifting with hypnotizing ease from doped-up wretch to abusive menace to stalwart matron figure. She's intimate drama one minute, slapstick comedy the next. She's a frail old woman on the brink of collapse; she's a terror bent on utterly eviscerating everyone around her. You want her to pay for her crimes almost as much as you want her to just be OK.
While Marley is the force that carries the play, there's plenty more to admire about this production. LeeAnne Hutchison is excellent as Barbara, especially as she slides into near-mania during the play's increasingly unhinged second half. Mattie Fae is played with pitch-perfect verve and malice by Natalie Canerday, a Russellville native who's appeared in major films ranging from "Sling Blade" to "Walk the Line." And then there's the house itself, a towering, maze-like masterwork of a set that fills the stage and manages to feel claustrophobic and agoraphobic all at once.
Despite the power of "August: Osage County," the play also overreaches in some ways, which is presumably a fault of the script rather than the production. There are hints throughout of an attempt at some larger social or cultural narrative — allusions to the decline of America, the broken promise of the West — but this ambition fails to cohere. Is there any point to the character of Johnna, the family's Native American housekeeper, other than to provide a simplistic moral prop and an opportunity for Violet to deliver a couple of outrageous lines about Indians? If so, it's never revealed.
What does work, however, is the force of the generational narrative — the sense that unhappiness is passed down over the decades, a recursive pattern of dysfunction. The truly awful part about family gatherings, after all, is not the petty annoyances and minor degradations themselves, but the intolerable repetition of it all — the return to those same roles we despise performing yet fall into again and again and again. In its last few scenes, "August: Osage County" descends to a place that can't be remotely called comedy, but whether that spiral of cruelty feels gratuitous or has the grim ring of truth depends, perhaps, on the viewer's personal experience. What could possibly be worse than the recurring brutality of family? Letts answers that question with merciless clarity: being left, finally, all alone.