Dip your candy canes in powdered Prozac and head over to the Kennedy Center for some of the most warped and magnificent holiday entertainment you are likely ever to see.
You think some of your relatives are difficult? They’re the freakin’ Waltons compared to the rancid Westons, the rural Oklahoma clan whose pack of lies has turned their Victorian homestead into a house of horrors. (Todd Rosenthal’s three-story set is a maleficent masterpiece of shadows, staircases, and sharp corners.)
Without air conditioning in the middle of a Plains summer, the house is literally a hotbed of emotions. The heat this family throws off makes you want to check your face for blisters during the two intermissions. That’s right — two intermissions and a 3 1/2-hour running time. Yet, “August: Osage County” flies by like a song — a bitter, savagely funny song about sloppily kept secrets, brutal love and survival.
They grow ‘em mean in Oklahoma. Patriarch Violet (Estelle Parsons) would give a stepped-on snake a run for his money. Pill-popping, manipulative and bellicose, Violet is the grown-up product of a lifetime of neglect and abuse, and because of that, she knows exactly where to wound her family members, especially daughters Barbara (Shannon Cochran), Ivy (Angelica Torn) and Karen (Amy Warren).
The various Westons gather in the aftermath of the suicide of patriarch Beverly (an elegiac Jon DeVries), an alcoholic and once-famous poet who strikes a grace note of failed loveliness and regret during his brief appearance in the first act. “My wife takes pills. I drink. That’s the bargain we’ve struck,” he says, and the sentences take on the cadences of poetry, T.S. Eliot, to be exact, whose hymns to despair and suffocating stasis haunt Tracy Letts’ play.
The funeral incites an orgy of bad behavior, as the stoned Violet unleashes a torrent of “truth-telling” and then sits back with a smug little smile on her face while the family grapples with sexual infidelity, incest, drug addiction, boozing and betrayal. Never does this litany of pathology become overwhelming, as Mr. Letts and director Anna D. Shapiro maintain a snappy, keep-them-on-the-edge-of-their-seats pace with a combination of caustically comic dialogue and the kind of plot twists you normally would find in a prime-time potboiler.
The perverse pleasures of “August” extend to the acting, and there is not one less-than-exceptional performance in the 13-member cast. Miss Parsons is so splendidly ornery as Violet that you send up a thankful little prayer to the heavens that she’s not your mother. You do admire her vicious aggression, though, often expressed by trooping up and down the stairs. Miss Cochran’s Barbara shares her mother’s razor tongue and laser intelligence, and when her distraught character comes to life in a howl of rage at the end of the second act, you feel as if you’ve been struck by lightning.
As her sisters, Miss Torn beautifully embodies the mousy, endlessly appeasing middle child, Ivy, and Miss Warren is oddly touching as the youngest girl, Karen, a self-absorbed doormat whose positive life affirmations clearly come from a lifetime of being dismissed and talked over. Libby George is hilarious as Violet’s colorfully abrasive sister, Mattie Fae, and Paul Vincent O’Connor is a portrait of tolerance and decency as her husband, Charlie.
The pockets of pain and cruelty seem bottomless, yet “August: Osage County” is never bleak. Its flame burns hard and pure, a fire that destroys and cleanses everything in its wake.
STAR RATING: **** ….
WHAT: “August: Osage County” by Tracy Letts
WHERE: Eisenhower Theater, Kennedy Center
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, through Dec. 20
TICKETS: $25 to $80