August in September

Oregon Contemporary Theatre kicks off its fall season with a rollicking family drama

It’s the stickiest month of the year in rural Oklahoma, and the air conditioning is off. That’s the way Violet Weston likes it, despite the fact that she’s hosting a houseful of sweltering family members who’ve gathered in her home following her husband’s disappearance. Her three daughters are here, and they’ve brought assorted husbands and children in tow. Caring for seemingly fragile Violet in her hour of need should feel like a “Very Special Episode” of your favorite TV show. But Violet Weston, a foul-mouthed drug addict in pearls, is a mother who makes herself hard to love.

Playwright Tracy Letts builds his masterful August: Osage County on the shoulders of the greats; his language drips with boozy zingers that seem issued from Tennessee Williams’ Big Mama herself. Neil Simon is in there, too, and the pace of this production is best when director Tara Wibrew lets it reach a zany sitcom boil. Throw Southern-tinged playwright Beth Henley into that mix — the play feels like Crimes of the Heart on speed. And not since Sam Shepard wrestled with family drama in the 1980s has an American play captured so exquisitely the soft cruelties of the family dinner.

An Oklahoma native (Oklahoma is not the South, not the Midwest, but the plains), playwright and actor Letts developed August: Osage County at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and that original cast carried it to Broadway. The play took home the 2008 Tony for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Ferocious and crackling, the script chugs bouncily through territory like alcoholism, drug addiction, affairs, poverty, abuse, and though the content might make you squirm, the writing is never maudlin. It’s a family dramedy for the 21st century; its three acts buzz by like you’re on your couch at home binge-watching your favorite TV show. You’ll laugh, you’ll cringe and you’ll find yourself at intermission reaching for a phantom remote to find out what happens next.

As an ensemble, this cast tackles the packed plot gamely. Standout performances include Rebecca Nachison as the tautly wound, acerbic-tongued Violet and William Campbell as her broken husband Beverly. Gloria Lagalo infuses Mattie Fae with broad comedy and cutting charm. Tim McIntosh as Little Charles, Dan Pegoda as Bill and Bary Shaw as Charlie drag with them enough pathos to kill a mule, and it’s a treat to watch them fumble, fall and eventually, right themselves.

August: Osage County runs Thursdays through Sundays through Oct. 12 at Oregon Contemporary Theatre.