When you’ve sat through a three-and-a-half-hour play and you feel as if not more than ninety minutes have gone by, either your mental faculties are waning or you’ve just witnessed a great work of theater. In the case of August: Osage County by Tracy Letts (in a riveting new production at the Keegan Theatre), it’s definitely the latter.
I honestly can’t figure out what makes this three-act Pulitzer Prize-winning play such a powerhouse. Sprawling sagas about dysfunctional families abound in American theater. Eugene O’Neill comes to mind. But you can often feel yourself growing older as you suffer through them. Not so with Osage County, whose indelibly idiosyncratic characters command your attention from the get-go with every glance and breath.
Under the sure-handed direction of Mark A. Rhea, the entire cast of thirteen gives one of the best ensemble performances I’ve seen. Rena Cherry Brown as the pill-popping matriarch tears up the rug, and our hearts. Susan Marie Rhea, Belen Pifel, and Karen Novack as her three damaged daughters serve up heapings of humor and pathos. And I was touched by Eric Lucas’s sheriff—a sensitive, upstanding guy who just happens into a family gathering that is ripping apart at the seams.
At the preview I saw, the audience gave an immediate standing ovation. The play—a hit on Broadway, where I first saw it—is staggeringly well written, a clockwork construction that winds up so much tragicomic tension that at the end it goes off like a fusillade of emotional time bombs.
But be assured: Once it begins, you enter a different time zone.