THEATER | "August: Osage County": In Steppenwolf's fantastically entertaining production, Estelle Parsons and her dysfunctional family carom across the Ordway stage like battling tops

Estelle Parsons in August: Osage County. Photo by Joan Marcus, courtesy Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

My grandfather was an English professor, but since my family wisely insulated my siblings and me from any knowledge of the demons he fought, I cannot verify whether the canon of American drama is correct in its repeated characterization of depressed academics as possessing an infinite supply of erudite, searingly witty bon mots to fling with most vigor at those who are least deserving. I trained as an academic, but I now teach online for a technical college, so I'm not sure what implications that will have for the zingers I might otherwise be expected to deliver in my old age. I suppose they'll be tart, concise, and posted on discussion boards in bullet-point format.

August: Osage County, the Pulitzer-winning, Tony-winning play by Tracy Letts now on tour in a production that opened Tuesday night at the Ordway, is so squarely in line with the O'Neill/Albee tradition of dysfunctional, dark-humored families whose members get drunk and tell one another they can't handle the truth that the play seems almost reactionary. Further, its Oklahoma setting supplies the characters with theatrically twangy accents that make it precisely the kind of play you'd see produced by an amoral turtleneck-wearing director in a movie about how the lonely actress he's lazily bedding finds true love with a quirky guy who works at her favorite coffee shop and secretly breakdances in an abandoned warehouse, dreaming of someday making his big break in a Broadway musical about breakdancing, which he's written between lattes and produces an espresso-stained copy of for the heroine to read at rehearsal while the turtlenecked lothario seduces her costar.

august: osage county, playing through march 21 at the ordway center for the performing arts. for tickets ($27-$70) and information, see ordway.org.

So this is not entirely untried material, but as written by Letts and channelled by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, it feels anything but tired. This kind of play is like a fireworks display: you know roughly what kind of surprises to expect, but if they're well-paced and delivered with style, they can produce lots of oohs and aahs. In that respect, August: Osage County completely delivers. Its long three acts are filled with scene after scene that have the audience wincing and laughing at the same time.

The character roster is a complete Who's Who Among Family-Drama Archetypes; in this case, they're gathering to mourn a death. There's the pair of aging parents: the alcoholic, washed-up-poet father (Jon DeVries) and the pill-addled mother (Estelle Parsons). Then there's the turning-into-her-mother eldest daughter (Shannon Cochran), the got-the-hell-out-of-Dodge youngest daughter (Amy Warren), and the underachieving-martyr middle daughter (Angelica Torn). The eldest daughter has an academic husband (Jeff Still) who's screwing his student, and the two of them have a troubled, nubile teenage daughter (Emily Kinney) for Warren's asshole fiancé (Laurence Lau) to creepily perv on. Then there's the busybody aunt (Libby George) and her doormat husband (Paul Vincent O'Connor), whose son (Steve Key) is tormented with a love that dares not speak its name—no, not that forbidden love, the other one. There's even the kindly sheriff (Marcus Nelson) who used to date Cochran back in high school and still bears a flame, and—for the win!—the saintly Native housekeeper (DeLanna Studi) who chuckles and shakes her head at the family's awkward attempts to be politically correct.

Characters like this generally come equipped with revelations that are exposed like Cracker Jack prizes as the action proceeds; like Cracker Jack prizes, they're nothing new but still exciting. Abetted by director Anna D. Shapiro, Letts wisely doesn't ask the audience to dwell very long on the implications of any given development before spooling another couple of wisecracks and trouping along to the next scene. The attractive and functional set by Todd Rosenthal places a full-sized house on stage, cut away so we can watch the characters move through it. (This presents multiple opportunities for the kind of trellis-climbing farce you'd find in a Blake Edwards movie, but Shapiro has the discipline to resist that temptation.)

The seasoned cast deliver their lines with the measured relish you find in a comedian working with material that he knows is good—they let the scenes build slowly, and deliver the money lines with perfect timing. Parsons is the marquee name, and she absolutely tears it up with a big performance in a big role. The Ordway is a cavernous venue for a family drama, but Parsons, Cochran, George, and the rest of the cast are so powerful that they heat the hall like Phantom of the Opera's fire pillars. Phantom was built for grand venues, and August: Osage County feels like it was too.

The play doesn't plumb the depths into which Albee's work delves—in fact, its prickly skin eventually falls away to reveal optimistic themes involving the importance of keeping your head up and your integrity in order while also not judging others too harshly. This will be very much to the liking of theatergoers who prefer entertainment to make them feel good about the world, and a nasty surprise for those who were hoping for a bracingly dark night of the soul. Whichever camp into which you fall, you'll find that August: Osage County is written and performed with an expert flair that make it a fantastically entertaining night at the theater.

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    Jay Gabler's picture
    Jay Gabler

    Jay Gabler (@JayGabler) is a digital producer at The Current and Classical MPR.