This year's abundance of theater in the Bluegrass continues with Kentucky Conservatory Theatre-SummerFest's production of Tracy Letts' August: Osage County.
This is the first foray into indoor, year-round theater for the organization that presents summer shows in the Arboretum.
For the occasion, the group has mounted one of the most important plays of our time. The winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award, this harrowing yet hilarious drama diagnoses the ills of contemporary American society by exploring the monstrous relationships in an extended family.
Like a modern Eugene O'Neill, Letts portrays a clan tortured by secrets, riddled by grudges and fueled by addictions, and he further horrifies the audience with the recognition of the family conflicts' ordinariness, as if to say none of us are so different.
Therein lies the power of this play, which posits that American society is so deeply compromised as to be irretrievable.
KCT's production is anchored by the portrayals of the two main characters, the family matriarch Violet (Susan Wigglesworth) and her favorite daughter Barbara (Bess Morgan). Both actresses reveal astonishing range in their performances, virtuosically sustaining rage, heartbreak and cruelty over three acts. They make these vicious women sympathetic enough that their tragedy is cathartic rather than illustrative. Morgan is especially creative in finding poisonous vocal inflections and facial expressions, and Wigglesworth delineates an amazing array of pill-induced behaviors. The haunting scene in which she gradually comprehends, through a severe narcotic haze, that her husband is dead, is bravura acting.
As Barbara's estranged husband Bill, Darius Fatemi makes an impressive area debut with a performance beautifully calibrated between his character's failings and his default position as the voice of reason. As Barbara's sisters, the repressed wallflower Ivy and the spoiled baby Karen, Pamela Perlman and Alicia Cox, respectively, contribute substantive characterizations. Perlman is cast against type, and the aching vulnerability of her performance shows a new maturity in her stagecraft, although at the climax of Ivy's plotline, more subdued histrionics would have been more credible. Cox owns one of the play's most memorable moments in her opening monologue, a searing depiction of Generation X's narcissism.
Tonda-Leah Fields brings volcanic energy as Violet's obnoxious sister Mattie Fae. Terry Withers and Nick Swarts play her henpecked husband and verbally abused son with palpable humiliation. The other performances are also memorable: Tom Phillips as Karen's hedonist of a fiancé, Jenny Fitzpatrick as Violet's Native American housekeeper, Glenn Tommy Thompson as Barbara's old flame, and Walter Tunis in a great cameo as Violet's husband. Hannah Ferrell does a credible job as Barbara's rebellious teenage daughter, but she seems too wholesome for such waywardness. She needs to take time in the transitions between her pot-induced non sequiturs. Her frenetic delivery seems more like that of a coke fiend.
Director Joe Ferrell's fluid staging makes effective use of the sprawling two-story set by Dathan Powell, which provides the audience with a cutaway view of the family house's various rooms, empty and looming like the bleak futures of the characters.