Great pains on the Great Plains

Pear Theatre's "August: Osage County" provides blistering family drama

"Thank God we can't tell the future. We'd never get out of bed." So declares Barbara Fordham in the darkly funny "August: Osage County," currently on stage at Mountain View's Pear Theatre.

The Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning Tracy Letts play takes place in a depressed (and depressing) small town in Oklahoma, where we meet the supremely dysfunctional Weston family. Matriarch Violet (Diane Tasca) is addicted to sedatives, pain killers, and basically any prescription pills she can get her hands on. When she isn't completely incoherent and slurring, she's hurling cruel words of abuse at anyone within reach and (fittingly, her husband suggests) suffering from cancer of the mouth. Said husband, patriarch Beverly (Bill C. Jones), is a well-regarded poet and professor but is also an unrepentant alcoholic, his one literary success far in the past. Since he and Violet no longer have the will or ability to take care of their home (its windows boarded up to keep the daylight out and lacking air conditioning or ventilation in the sweltering August heat), he hires calm, kind-hearted Johnna (Roneet Aliza Rahamim), a Native American nursing student who's had to quit school due to financial hardship, to be the live-in help. The show begins with Beverly lecturing her on T.S. Eliot (whose "The Hollow Men," with its famous "This is the way the world ends" stanza, proves relevant by play's end).

When Beverly goes missing, Violet's three estranged daughters are forced to return home to deal with the situation. Barbara (Betsy Kruse Craig), the most seemingly competent and strong of the siblings, returns from Colorado with her nebbish husband, Bill (Michael Champlin), and rebellious 14-year-old daughter Jean (Vivian Pride). Shy and mousy Ivy (Janine Saunders Evans) is 44, single, and sick of her mother's constant criticism, which she bears the brunt of as the child who's stayed closest to home. She's straightened her hair, in contrast to the lustrous curly locks of her mother and sisters, and is also harboring a controversial secret. Baby sister Karen (Marjorie Hazeltine) is self-absorbed and clueless. She's come up from Miami with her slick new fiance, Steve (Dan Kapler), a shady businessman, her glee over getting married overshadowing her family's utter breakdown.

Rounding out the cast are good-natured Charlie (Gary D. Mosher); his wife/Violet's kid sister the busybody Mattie Fae (Leslie Newport Wright), who viciously berates and belittles her adult son, "Little" Charles (Max Tachis) at every occasion; and Deon (Keith Larson), Barbara's high school sweetheart who's now the county sheriff, charged with solving the mystery of Beverly's disappearance.

It's quickly apparent that this won't be any sort of warm-and-fuzzy family reunion, and the rest of the play is essentially a series of fights and unpleasant revelations. And though Ivy declares that family is nothing more than people "accidentally connected by genetics, a random selection of cells," untangling oneself from this thorny family tree proves difficult. Barbara and Bill's marriage is collapsing, Jean resents them both, Steve's a creep, and everyone is thoroughly miserable most of the time.

Letts' script allows for much bitter humor throughout, with many sharp, funny exchanges (and, parents be warned, tons of "adult" language and disturbing themes).

Though it's overly long, at around three hours with two intermissions, the Pear's production (directed by Weekly contributing writer Jeanie K. Smith) keeps the action brisk and the audience attentive. The set, designed by Janny Cote, is marvelous, giving the decaying Weston house multiple rooms with functioning doors and passageways, creating a sense of space in the Pear's intimate theater. For audience members in the front row, it can be a bit hard on the neck when scenes are set far to the other side of the stage. Smith and the cast do a fantastic job of having the characters who are on stage in a scene but not part of the main action carry on with subtle activities. It helps create the sense that real family drama is happening, as does the fact that, during a tense dinner-party scene, the family sits all around a table (with real food), rather than lined up on one side facing the crowd.

This production boasts an all-star cast of veterans on the local-theater scene, and all do an excellent job. Because they're all so good, it's difficult to single out standouts, but Tasca (the Pear's producer and artistic director) commands the stage as Violet, a nasty person in so many ways but nonetheless sympathetic, especially when her own awful childhood comes to light. Though Dan Kapler's role is relatively small, he's absolutely captivating as the loathsome Steve. Pride and Craig are daughter and mother in real life, adding an interesting chemistry to their on-stage interactions, and Craig is terrific as Barbara, who over the course of the play finds herself, to her horror, becoming more and more like her mother, her voice slipping into a menacing drawl.

The downfall of the family in "August: Osage County" contains echoes of Classical or Shakespearean tragedy. And unhappy though the characters may be, their woes make for compulsively watchable drama. This is a show, to put it back in T.S. Eliot terms, with plenty of both bangs and whimpers.

What: "August: Osage County"

When: Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m., through July 10.

Where: Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida St., Mountain View.

Cost: $10-$35

Info: Go to Pear Theatre.

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