August, Osage County at the Paramount

August3Violet Weston is not a nice woman. She’s a cantankerous, acid-tongued drug addict whose greatest joy in life seems to be destroying other people’s happiness. Confined by age and infirmity to that narrow world of her home in rural small town Oklahoma, Violet has a limited range of targets for her bile, but she makes the most of every opportunity she gets. Maybe that’s why her husband Beverly hires a young woman to be a live-in housekeeper, cook and aide – with someone else there to take care of her needs, he might be able to get some distance from her.

A short time later, he gets all the distance he needs as he first becomes a missing person and later a corpse. His disappearance and death give Violet a chance to broaden her scope of attack as these events bring all three of her daughters and their familes (a husband and a daughter for one, a fiance for another), as well as Violet’s sister, brother-in-law and nephew, to the house to first wait for news of Beverly and then to deal with the news once they get it.

What is it that makes Violet so black-hearted? One of the strengths of August: Osage County, now playing at the Paramount Theater through November 1, is that there’s really no reason for her venom, that’s just the way she is. Oh, sure, there’s a bit in the second act where she talks about the hardness of her childhood, but her sister Mattie Fae had just as bad and she’s not nearly as mean as Violet. (Then again, it might be easier for Mattie Fae to be more pleasant to more people since she saves all her ire for just one.) Violet’s simply just not a nice person. Throughout the play it is suggested that Beverly killed himself to get away from Violet and the only thing shocking about the idea is that he waited until becoming elderly to do it.

It would be easy for an actor to make Violet a charicature, but Estelle Parsons does a tremendous job of keeping her at a human level. She stumbles on the stairs, she stumbles over own tongue, but still she persists; always nasty but sometimes very funny and insightful, too. Violet may be emotionally stunted and frequently hazy (she’s taking enough drugs to stock her own pharmacy) but she’s nobody’s fool, except maybe her own. Although Tracy Letts’s script smartly avoids turning her into the secret softie who deep down really and truly loves those she wounds, Parsons’ strong performance keeps her from becoming a one note gorgon; you’ll never really like her, but you’ll never really disengage, either.

Her loss is the audience’s gain, however, as her slings and arrows are clever, witty and well-spoken, full of sardonic humor. All of the characters in August speak well–this is a play where the talking is always the main focus, the primary action–but Violet stands heads and shoulders above them all. Miss Parsons gives us a complex woman who is sometimes mystifying, often infuriating, and always, always interesting to watch.

With such a strong character as its focus, it stands to reason that the supporting characters won’t be quite as developed and here is August‘s first weakness. Since all roads lead to Violet, nearly all of the characters are presented just as they relate to her, but in its effort to give all of the supporting characters equal weight, August shortchanges all of them equally. Eldest daughter Barbara is the most developed of them all but that’s mostly because she’s the most like her mother. The rest are standard recognizable types – the self-sacrificing middle daughter who sticks around for her mother’s abuse because someone has to, the youngest daughter so desperately needy for emotional affirmation from a man that she willingly pretends not to notice how skeevy he is, the rebellious teenaged daughter who feigns a sophistication that she doesn’t really feel, the middle aged man who has left his wife for a younger woman but doesn’t understand why this angers his wife so, the Noble Other…and their secret truths are neither all that secret or all that shocking as they’re all stock soap opera subplots as well – the skeevy fiance is inappropriate with the not-as-grown-up-as-she-pretends teenager, the happily married couple aren’t actually happily married, the mother and father who’ve spent a lifetime treating their children badly didn’t really like them all that much – wait, that’s a secret? Perhaps the most frustrating of the multiple sub-plots that serve to spur the play forward is a secret love affair doomed to failure for one of the most cliched “twists” in all of literature. That the other characters seem genuinely surprised when Violet reveals that she knows all of this already is a credit to the skill of the actors portraying them because anyone else could see them coming a mile away.

It is the cast that really makes August: Osage County; most of the characters might be somewhat less than fully three dimensional but their lines are filled with depth and delivery is very, very important. While Estelle Parsons is definitely the star of the show, the whole cast deserves recognition for doing the best they can with what’s handed to them, particularly Shannon Cochran as eldest daughter Barbara.

August: Osage County continues through November 1 at the Paramount.

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