A single slap from the hand of Barbara Weston-Fordham (Caroline Fairweather ’19) unto her teen-age daughter Jean Fordham (Sophie Gaddes ’20) muted the entire audience of the theatre department’s production of Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County. The essence of this moment – what gives it the ability to not just stun but to fascinate – is that only a few moments ago did the character of Barbara also engage in a physical conflict with her own mother, Violet Weston (Evelyn Mahon ’19).
A sense of repetition, of a generation committing the same mistakes as the past one, finds itself stretched out upon a stage framed by a simple and welcoming wooden design. Although almost all scenes take place within the Weston home, the only piece of construction on stage is a large ominous tree, reminiscent of the solace found in the empty plains of Lett’s Oklahoma. It is within that quiet expanse that the play begins, actors quietly moving props in under the gaze of Johnna Monevata (Gabz Amos-Grosser ’17) a young Cheyenne woman hired by Beverly Weston (T.L. Guest ’17), husband of Violet. This extended introduction successfully plays with what other adaptations of August struggle with: the importance of silence.
Violet and Beverly treat us to a slow dance and embrace in complete silence, with their shadows projected on stage right implying the complexity of their forty years of marriage. However, when the first scene begins, it is with Beverly interviewing Johnna for the position of Violet’s caretaker. The serenity and power in the character of Beverly is contrasted with a loud and rude Violet, struggling to manage all her pills. The last time the audience ever sees Beverly is as he gazes at his wife, covered up by the smoke of her cigarette, and leaves.
His exit becomes the call of the rest of the characters, the three Weston daughters: Barbara, Karen (Jacqueline Simeone ’18) and Ivy (Brigid Bruno ’17) and their respective families as well as Violet’s younger sister, Mattie Fae Aiken (Victoria Jasuta ’17) and her family. They arrive to help Violet respond to Beverly’s disappearance, now weeks long, which soon becomes a response to Beverly’s apparent suicide. The family rallies together for a funeral service and a dinner that quickly descends into insults, accusations and revelations. Violet incites her daughters, mocking their beauty and ways of life, especially needling at how Barbara has separated from her husband, Bill Fordham (Jackson Zerkle ’17) due to Bill now being in a relationship with one of his university students. That, and Violet professing her addiction to painkiller pills, leads Barbara to assault Violet and claim leadership of the Weston family.
A hidden affair between cousins, a creeping fiancé and the legacy of a decades-long affair all add up to the family leaving Violet and Barbara alone in the Weston home. What could have easily spiraled into a series of arguments and yelling becomes a well-thought out sequence of silences, which speak to the level of tension, hatred and love between mother and daughter.
August: Osage County is not a play about extraordinary people or circumstances but about how mundane circumstances of a mundane Oklahoma family can force individuals to, in extraordinary ways, understand themselves and their family. The play, endowed with a very talented cast, forces to the forefront issues that so many of us are afraid of facing within our own families.
The conflict between Violet and Barbara becomes the conflict between Barbara and daughter, Jean. The play undoubtely focuses on the resilience of these women, specifically after the suggested leader of the family, Beverly, disappears.
The strength in character of all the Weston women does more than lead and sustain a family through the ups and downs of Oklahoma for more than forty years. The power that these characters have is enough to drive each other crazy. But as the title suggests, the agony and joy of the Westons is just something normal happening in any regular month and any regular county.
Tracy Lett’s ‘August: Osage County,’ directed by Omar Sangare of the theatre department, ran at the Centerstage from April 27 to May 6. Photo courtesy of Keith Foreman.