“August: Osage County” opens in a tired, unruly house. More books litter the floor than sit on the bookshelf, and all the windows are taped over with black film. Beverly Weston (Randall King), the disheveled patriarch of this long empty nest, explains to his cook Johnna (L. Duarte) that the taped windows are his wife Violet’s doing. Violet Weston (Judith Miller) suffers from oral cancer and pill addiction, and she and the alcoholic Beverly suffer together in a world that no longer distinguishes night and day.
The scene, like the rest of the play, is suffocating. Beverly talks paragraphs at Johnna about the terribly mundane, mundanely terrible cycle of misery the Westons’ lives have fallen into. His contemplations on life are distressing and tedious, and at first, audiences might find themselves hoping that the rest of the play will be a little less of both — and then, he goes missing.
Somehow, the story finds a way to become even more upsetting; luckily, it also grows immensely enthralling. “August: Osage County” brilliantly explores themes of addiction, love and generational trauma through the extended Weston family.
Commence the frantic emergency family reunion, with renewed tensions proving much more stifling than the Oklahoma heat. The play has a substantial cast of characters — 13 in total — with complex relationships woven throughout. The first to arrive at the Weston home are Violet’s sister and brother-in-law, Mattie Fae (Marie Shell) and Charlie (Tim Kniffin), and middle daughter Ivy (Elena Wright). Next comes headstrong eldest daughter Barbara (Allison F. Rich), husband Bill (Michael Ray Wisely) and teen daughter Jean (Carley Herlihey). Finally, ditzy Karen (Tanya Marie) returns with fiance Steve (Joshua Hollister) and Mattie Fae and Charlie’s son, Little Charles (Matthew Kropschot) rounds out the gathering.
The large influx of family members to the Weston home is executed wonderfully: No introduction feels rushed, but the reunion is accurately hectic. Each character is unique and human, and these nuanced personalities bounce off one another in a shockingly realistic way. Under one roof again after several years and bonded by the tragic loss of Beverly, messy pasts are revisited and unspoken feelings bubble into opportunistic confrontations.
The already-precarious balance of keeping peace is continually disrupted as Violet’s addictions and breakdowns grow increasingly prevalent. While many characters have redeeming qualities, the play ambitiously tests them all at their worst. Watching the play is devastating, yet essential viewing; the subject matter is heavy, but the production is most poignant due to its frustrating closeness to real life struggles.
The actors’ performances fully live up to this emotionally demanding play. Rich delivers an outstanding performance as Barbara, who takes on the difficult responsibility of keeping the family together during this tumultuous time. Simultaneously shouldering the pain of her separation from unfaithful Bill, Barbara’s incredible strength — built on the foundation of necessity from a difficult upbringing — begins to crumble. Rich brilliantly portrays Barbara’s resilience amid waning patience, effortlessly making her character one of the most relatable and likable of the play.
Perhaps most commendable among the talented ensemble is Miller’s performance as Violet Weston. Violet is the most complicated and challenging role of the play, but Miller makes the job look easy. Throughout the play, Violet dips in and out of sobriety, miserable while high on pills and more so when she’s not. She’s evidently the most traumatized and haunted character of them all, yet she’s also the most hated. Miller’s performance is heartbreaking — her Violet is despicable with a sliver of sympathetic. It’s easy to forget that she’s acting at all; it seems much more likely that a real Violet Weston was plucked from the plains and asked to share her life story on the stage.
With a riveting story and marvelous ensemble cast, “August: Osage County” is a smashing success. As San Jose Stage’s best of the season yet, it is simply not to be missed.