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Curtain Call
Eight O’Clock unleashes dysfunction in August: Osage County
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The ensemble cast of Eight O’Clock Theatre’s production of “August: Osage County” includes, from left, Ana Bernot-Reilly, Margee Sapowsky, Ben Taylor, Linda Roth-Grayne, Catherine Harp, T.J. Gill, Donna Donnelly and Linda Woodruff Weir.
Eight O’Clock Theatre’s production of “August: Osage County,” by Tracy Letts, runs through Aug. 31 at Largo Cultural Center, 105 Central Park Drive, Largo.

The play contains adult language and content and is recommended for mature audiences only.

Performances are Thursday through Saturday, 8 p.m.; and Sunday, 2 p.m. Tickets are $25.50 plus applicable service fees. Call 587-6793 or visit largo­arts.­com.

In his notes regarding the production, director Christopher Rutherford proposes that it is time to combine two famous idioms to create a new turn of phrase: “You can never go home again because home is where the heart is.”

Rutherford touches upon some of the family dynamics the Letts explores in the play.

“I’m not a parent but when I ponder what it must be like to pour the best and worst parts of yourself into another soul, and then one day to have them leave and live life on their own, I find the range of emotions and fears is unfathomable,” he writes. “We leave our family behind and we build a new family. If we’re lucky, the new and the old will blend together – but for many, life doesn’t hold such luck.”

The play is a spellbinding study of a dysfunctional family undergoing a full-scale nuclear meltdown. “August: Osage County” is simultaneously unsettling and beguiling in its voyeuristic perspective on familial entanglements. Darkly comedic, the story unfolds inside the home of Beverly and Violet Weston in rural Oklahoma.

Beverly – a once-respected poet whose glory days are far behind him – is an alcoholic. Violet – who is undergoing treatment for cancer – has become addicted to various prescription painkillers. In the opening scene, as Beverly interviews young Native American Johnna for a job as Violet’s caregiver, the audience quickly senses how toxic life has become inside the house – and that’s even before all of the family’s many dark secrets are revealed.

What causes the series of revelations – and the gradual disintegration of the brittle ties that once bound these kinfolk – is Beverly’s sudden, unexpected disappearance. His departure reunites all family members and ignites one confrontation after another.

Michael Mahoney stars as Beverly Weston. Mahoney’s whisky-drenched opening monologue – impeccably delivered – helps set the tone of “August: Osage County.” The actor’s melancholy humor suggests that lurking just beneath the charade of momentary serenity is a raging storm.

Donna Donnelly portrays Violet Weston. Donnelly manages to invoke laughter when she’s mocking her family; but it’s her weakest moments in which the actress truly excels. It is a wildly difficult role to tackle as Violet moves from malicious backbiting and manipulation to drug-fueled disorientation and lonely desperation.

Linda Woodruff Weir is Mattie Fae Aiken, Violet’s sister. Weir delivers a deliciously screeching, uncouth bully. Like Violet, Mattie Fae has no concern for other people’s feelings – and she is particularly cruel to her own son. Weir doesn’t hold back in her portrayal of this shameless, nasty maternal despot.

T.J. Gill is perfectly cast as Charlie Aiken, Mattie Fae’s generously forgiving husband. Gill makes the audience believe that Charlie may well be the only human capable of spending prolonged periods of time with Mattie Fae.

Their son, Little Charles Aiken, is played by Jonathan Pouliot. Pouliot offers a heartrending performance as a young man continually demoralized by his overbearing mother.

Starring as Beverly and Violet’s eldest daughter Barbara Fordham is Linda Roth-Grayne. Roth-Grayne’s performance is impressive: While Barbara wields the same caustic cynicism that has isolated her mother, she is by far a more sympathetic character. Roth-Grayne perfectly renders that heartbreaking moment in which an adult child realizes it has inherited all of the worst traits of its parents.

Catherine Harp stars as Ivy Weston, Barbara’s sister. Harp brings to the character just the right amount of mousy meekness. She sprinkles in hints of latent assertiveness along the way to lend weight to Ivy’s eventual bid for emancipation.

The third sister, Karen Weston, is portrayed by Stephanie Bell. Bell seizes on this sister’s skewed rationale. Karen seems narcissistic and self-absorbed, unwilling or unable to acknowledge the needs of others or express her own grief – but her selfishness a defense mechanism. Bell underscores Karen’s own frantic – and sometimes reckless – attempts to distance herself from the ruins of her family.

The cast also includes Ben Taylor as Bill Fordham, Barbara’s husband; Margee Sapowsky as Jean Fordham, Bill and Barbara’s daughter; Thom Jay as lecherous Steve Heidebrecht; Ana Benot-Reilly as unflappable Johnna Monevata; and Brad Barkley as Sheriff Deon Gilbeau.

As usual, set designer Tom Hansen has created the ideal microcosm for this ensemble cast. His interpretation of the Weston’s three-story house of chronic misery serves as a perfect setting for this production.

Eight O’Clock Theatre’s production of “August: Osage County” is gripping, emotionally taxing and ultimately rewarding. It is a darkly comic drama, filled with ferocity and fierce wit. The intensity of its ensemble cast is superb under the direction of Rutherford. As secrets are revealed and decorum is brushed aside, audiences will find the ensuing collapse of the Weston clan is viciously candid yet morbidly captivating.
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