Encore Michigan

Osage County is a family drama that percolates

Review September 19, 2015 Bridgette Redman

Dysfunction doesn’t just run through the Weston family, it gallops, leaving no one untouched no matter what the age or temperament. And at What a Do Theater, Director Randy Wolfe makes sure each role in this damaged family is cast with just the right actor and given just the right stage play.

spotlight2Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County is a family drama of the first order. It shows all the ways a family can hurt each other and all the reasons they leave each other. It starts with Beverly Weston (RJ Soule) hiring Johnna Monevata (Jamelah Earle) to take care of the house right before he disappears. The matriarch of the family, Violet Weston (Susan M. Kernish), gathers the family together to deal with the crisis. Her three daughters and her sister and their respective families show up and sparks fly in every direction.

It’s a show in which the hand of the director was omnipresent. The pacing of the three-hour show moved quickly, things in near constant motion in this huge three-story house. People argued and spoke over one another and the choreography of players created a controlled chaos.

It’s also a show in which each of the actors contributes a strong performance without a single weak link in the 13-person cast.

Kernish, as the matriarch, is central to making the drama of this show work, and she was fully up to the task. She dominates the stage when she is on it whether she was in a fog of pills or on the attack, taking on all of her family members with her “truth telling.” She mastered the different moods of the character, showing a strength of cruelty that eventually crumbles as the consequences shower in around her.

The mirror to her mother is Stacy Little’s Barbara Fordham who arrives with her estranged husband Bill (Max Wardlaw) and 14-year-old daughter Jean (Courtney Johnson). Ms. Little shows great emotional range in this production and her scenes pack a punch. Her character, Barb, is frequently overwhelmed by her situation and Little portrays her lashing out with vitality and energy.

The beleaguered Ivy Weston is played by Stefani Lynn Wallace, making her third appearance at What a Do. Wallace shows the desperation of living under her mother’s thumb for 47 years, constantly being treated as though she is damaged goods. She expresses this desperation with voice and facial expression, even while constantly trying to assert herself.

Violet’s sister Mattie Fae Aiken is played by Gail Curtis Snyder. Snyder is domineering and opinionated in the role, picking up cues with lightning speed and showing disgust for the behavior of her son Little Charles (Mark Switzer).

Johnson convincingly plays a rebellious teenager who is sullen with her family, but opens up to Johnna and later Steve Heidebrecht (Nicholas Mumma), Karen Weston’s (Teri Christ Noaeill) fiancé. Jean is spared none of the cruelty though she is the youngest in the family and is frequently the most defenseless against the misbehaviors of the adults.

Earle is long-suffering as the non-family member who sets out to take care of them all by cleaning and providing food (and props master Thomas Koehler deserves applause for the meals of real food he provided for the stage, feeding many hungry mouths). She also cares for the family in ways they are unable to care for each other and she does it without ever engaging them in their cruelties or arguments.

Her final moment should be a chilling one, but it is drowned out by the Eric Clapton music that doesn’t fade out.

While this play mostly belongs to the women, the men also contribute to the success of this production. Loofboro is patient as the brother-in-law who truly loved and respected Beverly and saw him as being a good man despite his drinking. Soule reveals in the very beginning the man around whom most of the action will swirl. He tells us early on that he drinks and his wife takes pills, and that he accepts it with equanimity. Mumma is suitably creepy as the slick consultant from Florida who has swept Karen off her feet. Switzer is as beleaguered as Ivy and it is easy to see why they are kindred spirits.

What a Do performs in a theater that is low-ceilinged, a challenge for a set that demands three stories. Scenic Designer Samantha Snow solves this by putting rooms up on platforms that give the appearance of a second and third story. The attic is given a wooden wall treatment and rustic appearance. With the length of their stage, this works out just fine.

In addition to the fine job she plays as the self-absorbed Karen, Noaeill is also stage manager, a challenging job with this show as there are constantly people entering and exiting. The set changes include cleaning up after full dinners and ensuring a wide variety of props are in place.

“August: Osage County” is a powerful show and the cast and crew of What a Do do it solid justice.