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August: Osage County makes Virginia Woolf look like sheep's clothing

Caustic Pulitzer winner turns family feuds into rollercoaster ride

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Violet Weston is such a perfect harpy, she makes Martha from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? look like she was just having a bad day. The Oklahoman mother of three grown children, Violet spews vicious insults like hurricanes spawn gale force winds. Veteran Atlanta actress Brenda Bynum left retirement to play the pill-popping diva matriarch for the Alliance Theatre's thrilling production of August: Osage County.

Almost miraculously, Bynum and director Susan V. Booth find some sympathy for Violet, a woman not unfairly described as a "monster" by her own kin. Playwright Tracy Letts won the Pulitzer, the Tony and umpteen other theater awards for Osage County, which adds up to more than a wrenching and often hilariously funny catalogue of bad behavior.

Turning family reunions into blood sports, Osage County repeatedly discovers that human weakness inevitably undermines the best intentions. Bynum conveys that Violet isn't just hateful but an inherently damaged individual fighting against a fatal illness. At calm moments she's actually sweet to her family, while another time, discombobulated by drugs, she swings into a deranged, almost shamanistic dance. Violet suffers for her grotesque outbursts no less than her own children, yet can't manage to change herself.

Booth cultivates a sense of familial connection by filling the cast with mainstays of the Atlanta theater scene, including Georgia Shakespeare Artistic Director Richard Garner and 7 Stages Artistic Director Del Hamilton. Hamilton opens the play with a speech as boozing paterfamilias Beverly Weston when he hires a new home caregiver, a young Cheyenne woman named Johnna Monevata (Diany Rodriguez). Throughout the play, Johnna serves as a sane and taciturn witness to the Westons' flailing misery, without becoming a clichéd voice of morality.

When Beverly mysteriously disappears, the extended family returns home, including Violet's three daughters: seething Barbara (Tess Malis Kincaid), mousy Ivy (Carolyn Cook) and self-absorbed Karen (Courtney Patterson). Antagonism so fuels the family dynamic that any change can upset the balance of power, and Barbara's frustrations and anger inspire her to push back against her overbearing mother. Watching Kincaid spar with Bynum is like having a ringside seat to a championship boxing match.

Most of the characters struggle against their hungers for drugs, alcohol or sex. For instance, Barbara's husband (Chris Kayser) is a tender-hearted philanderer and their daughter (Carapace's Bethany Anne Lind) smokes bowls of pot at every opportunity. The play builds to salacious revelations, but they're just the symptoms of a sick emotional structure. The Westons can slip so easily into attack mode that the play sets a sky-high level of tension. When one stumblebum spectacularly drops a casserole, the audience gasps with surprise as if blood has been spilled.

August: Osage County lasts well over three hours, yet sustains such momentum that you scarcely feel the running time. Booth keeps the characters swirling — at one point there's practically a symphony of fractious conversation — and exploits the depth of Leslie Taylor's set. During some conversations, Booth will frame characters in the background or on another level of the three-story set, enriching the play's texture. With three sisters at its core, the ensemble suggests a social microcosm worthy of a Chekhov play. Even the smallest roles, like Bart Hansard's sheriff, suggest rich, lived-in personalities. Instead of languid Russians, however, Letts presents us with aggro-Americans.

Beverly was a college professor and successful poet, and Letts bookends the play with references to T.S. Eliot. August: Osage County's profane family feuds most vividly evoke Philip Larkin's famous poem "This Be the Verse" with its still-shocking opening lines: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you."

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