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Hot Summer Nights | Theatre Raleigh has taken a big leap with its opening of August: Osage County in the Fletcher Opera Theater — a much larger, and more formal space than the Kennedy Theater the company has used since its inception. The 2007 play by Tracy Letts (which won both a Pulitzer and a Tony Award in 2008) is big — big cast, big story, big set — and demanded more space. Chris Bernier's fine, three story set, with its elaborately detailed rooms, could not have been made to fit in the Kennedy, and all those levels and spaces are necessary. This is a show that requires more than a symbolic set. On opening night, the audience was twice the number that would have filled the Kennedy, which indicates that both the company and its audience were ready for this growth spurt.
Under the intelligent, well-timed direction of Eric Woodall, August: Osage County examines three generations of an extended family at a time of particular crisis, even for them. Osage County stretches north and west from Tulsa, Oklahoma, to the Kansas line, and is the kind of place on the plains where people find either contentment or the overwhelming urge to be somewhere else. The family's story is introduced by the patriarch, Beverly Weston (Phil Crone), as he interviews a young woman to live in and help around the house. He explains the situation: he drinks; his wife takes pills. One doesn't cause the other, he says, it is just how it is, and they don't interfere with each other's habits. The habits, however, are detrimental to orderly housekeeping. Even as she begins to take in how off-kilter this family is, Johnna Monevata (Kathleen Lynch, quietly impressive) remains eager for the job. She needs the work. Weston — at one time a prize-winning poet and university professor — gives Johnna a book of T.S. Eliot poems, and that's the last we see of him.
His disappearance triggers the arrival of the family, to gather around pill-addled Violet Weston. Even if this script were not so emotionally powerful and painfully funny, I expect actress Dorothy Lyman as Violet would make it appear so. But the script is great, and Lyman gives it the supercharged twist that turns it into a tornado of language, feeling and revelation over the course of three acts. Like a tornado, Violet can change direction at full speed. It is no wonder her daughters have problems.
Lisa Brescia plays the good daughter, Ivy, who has stayed near home, and taken care of her folks while the others escape. She does a lovely job with the role, gently asserting herself again and again as Violet beats on her emotionally, and creating a dark inward intensity to balance the considerable excesses of all her female kin. Lauren Kennedy's a force of nature herself as the self-absorbed Karen, now a high-heeled, mini-dress wearing real estate broker in Miami, and engaged to Steve (Estes Tarver), a jovial creep. Eldest daughter Barbara has the biggest of the daughter roles, and Julie Fishell makes a mighty meal of it. In fact, one of the great pleasures of this show for regulars at PlayMakers will be seeing Fishell in an ensemble where everyone's playing up to her level. She's fantastic in every aspect of the role, and like Lyman's Violet, can turn on a dime. The scenes between her Barbara and Lyman's Violet practically set the furniture on fire, and when Barbara turns on her own daughter, Jean (Mary Mattison Vallery, very good), you see how tragedy and pain leap like flame from generation to generation.
The family is filled out by Violet's sister, Mattie Fae (Pamela Dunlap, having a big time playing this piece of work), her husband Charles, and son Little Charles. Paul Paliyenko, looking like Merle Haggard and speaking with an impeccable twang, does the best work I've seen from him, and makes a warm island of kindness in the maelstrom. Jesse R. Gephart makes a sweet Little Charles, a grown-up who hasn't figured out how to be one yet, between his mother's cruel berating and his father's continual protectiveness.
Barbara is bookended by two men. Her faithless husband Bill (so well played by Jeffery West that one can almost sympathize), and Sheriff Gilbeau (the always solid David McClutchey), the investigating officer who finds Beverly Weston's (remember him?) body, drowned in the lake. Turns out Gilbeau was her prom date, back in high school, and he offers the betrayed, menopausal woman a lifeline — he asks her out.
After all the shattering revelations, family secrets revealed, out is the only way to go for all the daughters. You cheer them for leaving, but you must cry for Violet, widowed and abandoned to stew in her own mad vitriol. She cries to lights down, a long litany of "gone…gone…gone" as the gentle Johnna, "the stranger in her house" holds her tight. This time, the playwright lets us see the effects of the cause.
August: Osage County continues through Dec. 9. See our sidebar for details.