Collision Shines Bright in ‘August Osage Country’

August Osage County

‘This is the way the world ends, This is the way the world ends, This is the way the world ends,” and so ends Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County running through April 1 at Warren’s 2nd Story Theatre. Some may recognize those final utterings from the final stanza of T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men,” with the title, many believe, serving as a subtle allusion to the character of Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness referred to as “hollow at the core.”
Likewise, many of the characters who populate Letts’ over-the-top look at a dysfunctional family living in the wastelands of Pawhuska, Oklahoma. posses a Kurtz-like hollowness. The men are all impotent and the women are damaged beyond repair. The play itself is part comedy, part tragedy but thoroughly depressing!
Much of the action centers around the relationships between a pill-popping, mean-spirited and foul-mouthed mother, Violet, and her three daughters: Barbara, the oldest and outwardly the most competent but inwardly very damaged; Ivy, the most fragile of the three who never worked up the courage to leave home and resents everybody for it; and Karen, so eager for a meaningful relationship that she ignores her finance’s sleazy and perverted behavior.
The denouement occurs when the girls return home for their father’s (Beverly) funeral following his suicide. Fatherless and soulless, the family airs all its dirty laundry during a meal commemorating Beverly’s passing, presided over, ironically enough, by Johnna, a Native American he hired as a caretaker for Violet shortly before his disappearance. Proud of her own family heritage, Johnna wears a necklace that contains pieces of her umbilical cord, thus preserving her lineage and her soul, in contrast to the family she looks after whose souls, after death, are condemned to “walk the earth looking for where [they] belong.”
The Act II family dinner, which Violet refers to as “truth telling time” while verbally attacking all present, loudly serves as the play’s highlight. Following some extremely powerful exchanges between Violet and Barbara, with Barbara literally trying to pry the pills from her mother’s hands: “Try to get ‘em away from me and I’ll eat you alive … I’ll eat you alive girl,” the audience sits in a stunned silence as the lights rise for the second of two short intermissions.
The production features a very capable cast, but Lynne Collinson’s portrayal of Violet is marvelously gut-wrenching. Whether stumbling across the stage in a drug induced stupor or lamenting with her daughters during brief moments of lucidity, Collinson makes many of the unbelievable things occurring in this play somewhat believable. As Barbara, Joanne Fayan also has some very fine moments with the unenviable tasking of having to match Collinson’s pitch and power.
And while Letts’ August: Osage County presents a powerful and compelling look at a family’s crimpling dysfunctions, his continually pushing the envelope, just when you think things have hit bottom, the bottom gives way once again, seems to be asking a bit too much from the audience. But, I recall a writing professor who once confided in me that he no longer felt comfortable determining whether or not his students’ writing was believable or plausible. After a brief pause, he concludes, “look at the world we live in.”
August: Osage County, 2nd Story Theatre, 28 Market St. Warren. Runs thru April 1.