Even though it’s set in stifling late summer Oklahoma, “August: Osage County” makes for ideal holiday-season theater fare. When spending time with the family this year, you might want to think about the play’s extremely screwed up Weston clan and your own familial dysfunction is certain to pale in comparison. If it doesn’t, then we’re sorry for you.
In the first scene of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer- and Tony -winning tragicomedy playing at the Kennedy Center through Dec. 20, family patriarch Beverly Weston (Jon DeVries) amiably shares, “My wife takes pills and I drink.” Proving the veracity of his words, Violet (Estelle Parsons) soon shuffles into her husband’s study high as a kite, virtually mute.
By scene two, Beverly has mysteriously disappeared, prompting his and Violet’s three adult daughters and other extended family to gather at the couple’s small town Ohio home. And here’s when things start to get good.
When not too drugged to speak, Violet — we soon learn — spews some cruel, albeit often hilarious, venom aimed primarily at daughters hard-shelled Barbara (Shannon Cochran), timid Ivy (Angelica Torn) and Karen (Amy Warren), the queen of denial. Violet’s laser-like cuts range from nasty digs to take-no-prisoners psyche crippling assaults, and have over the years.
As the play unfolds, an inventory of family dysfunction is presented: verbal abuse, addiction, adultery, incest and more. Not surprisingly, Violet reveals at two different points that she, as well as her equally acerbic sister Mattie Fae (Libby George), suffered abuse from their own mother during their joyless Depression-era childhood.
Set designer Todd Rosenthal’s seemingly innocuous three-story frame house (whose steep stairways the 80-something Parsons frequently climbs and descends with enviable nimbleness and speed throughout the play) is an important element in the show, a character really. This is where the girls grew up and where for so many years their damaged mother numbed herself while their emotionally absent, but not unkind, father drank.
At three-and-a-half hours, “August: Osage County” is — for the most part — hugely entertaining and never feels long. Staged by Anna D. Shapiro, some scenes, especially the moment when the entire family disastrously comes together for a meal in the second act and those featuring Parson’s Violet with her sister and/or daughters, are better than others, but overall it’s an intelligent crowd pleaser, marvelously acted, darkly comic and well-written.
Parsons — an character actress best known for her Academy Award-winning turn as Blanche the preacher’s daughter turned gun moll in “Bonnie and Clyde” and more recently as “Roseanne’s” mother on TV — is superb as Violet. She’s a charming monster, simultaneously evil yet likable.
Ultimately, “August: Osage County” comes down to a conflict between stubborn, pill-popping Violet and Barbara her oldest and most confrontational daughter. Sadly it’s a battle that neither can ever win.
‘August: Osage County’
Through Dec. 20
The Kennedy Center: Eisenhower Theatre
$25 to $80