August: Osage County

Theatre Raleigh/ Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy at Fletcher Opera Theatre

Through Dec. 9

It may well be that a harsh old person is one of the Devil’s masterpieces, as author Margot Benary-Isbert suggests. But Violet, the riveting, venomous matriarch in August: Osage County, is actually actor Dorothy Lyman’s. Under Eric Woodall’s direction in this compelling Theatre Raleigh/Hot Summer Nights production, Lyman turns the mother of the Weston clan into an indomitable, destructive force of naturea 5-foot-nothing high plains twister who sweeps all bystanders into her riving embrace before scattering the remains to the four winds.

Tracy Letts’ 2008 Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play documents the fallout from a family gathering after Violet’s husband, Beverly, disappears from their Oklahoma home. As the first two acts unfold, we quickly see just how much there was for him to run away from. When Violet’s three adult daughters return to the old homestead, Lyman’s matriarch quickly morphs from distraught helplessness to ruler of the roost. In no time, Violet’s relitigating every autonomous decision Barb (Julie Fishell), Ivy (Lisa Brescia) and Karen (Lauren Kennedy) have ever made, with a potent mix of guilt tripping, ersatz vulnerability and coarse language. It’s clear that the secret to Violet’s verbal self-defense usually involves a very good offense.

The genius of Letts’ script involves the number of laughs he mines from the familial turf Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams explored. In a holiday season in which a number of us will negotiate problematic family get-togethers, the Westons prove at least one thing: It can always be worse. The mostly graceless interactions of this extended family frequently have us laughing, even as the sharpest words draw blood.

Fishell’s Barb is a match for Violet, in a performance more robust than several of her recent roles at PlayMakers, and as Ivy, Brescia fully embodies a thoughtful, overlooked sister determined to make a change. Phil Crone’s work as Beverly remains too avuncular, without adequately exploring the character’s dark side, and Estes Tarver leaves the sleaze factor of Steve, Karen’s fiancée, a bit too hypothetical. Mary Mattison Vallery ably conveys teen disdainand comic marijuana paranoiaas Barb’s daughter, Jean.

But in the second act, a galling gaffe in staging gave audience members seated on the left bank an obstructed view during the climactic dinner table sequence. When Woodall placed Jeffery West (as Barb’s husband, Bill) at the foot of the table, I spent the entire scene looking at his back instead of Violet’s face as she proceeded to carve, not into a roasted bird, but each of her guests instead.

Still, the excellence of this production deserves commendationand a quick correction for a dysfunctional bit of blocking. As revelations spill out from this hellish and amusing reunion, even those children who haven’t fallen far enough from the poisonous apple tree of home are finally catapulted from this ground zero. Good for themand us, too.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Season’s greetings and hellish holidays.”