There are many good theatrical productions each year in South Florida, and there are a handful of great ones. Then there are shows like “August: Osage County” at Actors’ Playhouse -that rare show of such exquisite
perfection that it sets a new standard to which every show to come out for the rest of the year should aspire. It’s produced entirely locally, but you couldn’t tell it from Broadway.
This kind of glowing complement is not new for Actors’ Playhouse. The Coral Gables theater is known for its expensive productions, full of lavish props and A-list talent. The theater’s “Les Miserables” was Broadway-ready in 2009, and its “Miss Saigon” is the musical front-runner at next month’s Carbonell Awards.
But those were musicals, and beloved ones at that, with decades of pedigree. To tackle “August: Osage County” -a recent work, which won the Tony for Best Play in 2008 – is a different beast entirely. Actor’s Playhouse has built its reputation on its superlative stagings of Broadway musicals, and finally it has mounted a modern nonmusical masterpiece on par with them.
The play is set in a large country home in rural Oklahoma, where Violet Weston (Annette Miller), the pill-popping matriarch of an extended family, has requested the presence of her sister, three daughters and their respected spouses and offspring, on the occasion of the disappearance of her hard-drinking husband Beverly (Dennis Creaghan). The result is the ultimate dysfunctional family saga, spanning 13 fully realized, three-dimensional characters over the course of three and a half hours, with two intermissions.
“August: Osage County” is witty and relatable, while at the same time dredging up society’s most sordid elements. It’s a play that addresses incest, adultery, pedophilia, drug abuse, suicide, alcoholism and prejudice, all of which are seen, exposed, or alluded to in the space of Sean McClelland’s extraordinary set design: a three-story home that looks like a giant, creaky dollhouse, ready to be physically – and metaphorically -toppled.
David Arisco’s staging offers a feast for the eyes in just about every quadrant of the set. Rather than freezing his inactive cast members in time, as most productions do, Arisco has them continue living in the house’s many rooms, even when they’re not the subjects of the given scene’s dialogue. At one time, filial crises take place in at least three areas of the stage at once, with the clangorous houseguests chattering over each other with Altmanesque depth, and you can essentially be your own cinematographer. That’s one of the pleasures of this production: Those sitting on one side of the auditorium will see different nuances than those seated at the opposite side. It’s a play that encourages multiple viewings from multiple vantage points.
Miller is outstanding in the play’s only leading role, slurring her words with drugged conviction, channeling some of the disturbed spontaneity of Gena Rowlands in “A Woman Under the Influence.” The local ensemble keeps pace with her every step of the way, and the standouts include Laura Turnbull as Violet’s micromanaging daughter Barbara; Barbara Bradshaw as Violet’s bombshell-dropping sister Mattie Fae; and Stephen G. Anthony as the creepy, pedophilic fiancee to Violet’s daughter Karen (Amy McKenna).
To watch “August: Osage County” is watch the final nail being hammered into the coffin of the 1950s nuclear-family ideal. Our country, as symbolized by this theatrical microcosm, is a crumbling empire. The American Dream has become the American Nightmare, and these are the tortured people haunting it. It’s a play that is self-important and good enough to have every right to be. This is exactly what theater is about – stirring our souls and making us think. You owe it to yourself to schlep down to Gables and see it, if it’s the only play you see all year.
“August: Osage County” is at Actor’s Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables, through April 3. Tickets are $46. Call 305/444-9293 or visit www.actorsplayhouse.org.