Family intensity unequaled. That was Mesa Encore Theatre’s first night of August: Osage County at Mesa Arts Center. The Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award drama winner is an awesome, gritty, sweat and blood family survival story. Director Phillip Fazio and actor Christi Sweeney (Barbara Fordham) visited before last night’s opening performance about the heart rending experience that was about to unfold.
“It’s isolation and disconnected human relationships,” said Arizonan-turned-New York director Fazio describing the play’s center. His beyond sensitive and studied direction provided a steady heartbeat to a script that quavers, through three “jaw-to-the-floor” acts, on the brink of family implosion.
It’s a mother spitting blistering insults from her cancer-plagued mouth. It’s three sisters bound by young survival tactics, but separated by adult lives lived to diffuse their stinging childhoods. It’s shouting obscenities to whisper truths. It’s a wrenching, grandly successful presentation of family failures.
No weak twine unraveled in this delicate, strangling, extended-family knot. No cast member lacked verisimilitude in any raw, singular, audacious portrayal. It wasn’t acting so much as it was enveloping playwright Tracy Letts’ characters and oozing them through Fazio’s unflinching vision.
Sweeney suggested that [what Fazio dubs “this dream cast”] “drives you down to dark places to find the character without being afraid. You’re with actors you trust; you’re going to be safe,” she said.
But it was bigger than that. That is, opening night, (not just as in the initial public performance, but as in an opening of us, our humanity) demanded the audience silently become part of the trust covenant. Live theatre truly owned, cradled, by the community it played to.
It’s a family-sized Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf that dares to cut deeper than caustic spousal ribbing, so as to clear away enough pain and invite room for embracing forgiveness. So much more personal than a 20-foot, post-chemo Meryl Streep image, Sheri Watts (Violet Weston) became our unapologetic, deeply troubled, sadly addicted, widowed friend. It was the instantaneous bond borne of coming too late to tragedy that desperately needed our compassion.
Every willing audience member merged multiple moments of raw-nerve memory as the cast bravely splayed open dark Weston secrets, the truths fusing with shards of their own lives. Sweeney offered, “It touches what we all can relate to but don’t want to talk about.”
The audience members sat peeking through the window for three hours. One hopes witnessing an episode so personal, so painful, will allow you to bear some of the burden, to ease for just a moment the writhing agony your neighbor is enduring.
“No one’s family is actually like this…. Is it?” said a forty-something mom to her sister between acts. But the tentative, “Is it?” belied her contrary suspicion.
“Real life is not about musicals,” said Sweeney about why such a “beautifully written,” emotionally jarring piece is important to perform.
Thankfully, the show’s intensity is relieved by genuine irony and gentle absurdity that leave plenty of room for deep belly laughs. Expertly staged flamboyance (Mattie Faye Aiken played by Janis Webb) and well-guided prop fiascoes provided wonderful comic relief. Kudos too, to Jeffrey Middleton (Charlie Aiken) for the fried chicken chuckles and uproarious dinner table moments.
Further, the show was tempered with moments of authentic Christmas card affection, the kind by which we all outwardly define family. Violet joining her daughters for pillow talk on the eve of her husband’s funeral exuded undeniable warmth. The couch-to-piano scene between Ivy (Brenda Jean Foley) and ‘Little Charles’ (Todd Michael Isaac) was a promise that sweet innocence and affections can survive the worst of circumstances.
“NO!” murmured an elderly gentleman in the first row toward the end of the third act. In that intimate setting, after enduring the onslaught of cruelties right along with the Weston family, one finally hit so personal a nerve, he couldn’t contain it.
The show is a beautiful exercise for us in listening compassionately, in accepting non-judgmentally, in helping bear one another’s grief. “It’s theatre that gets us talking, that gets us thinking,” concluded Fazio.
If honoring a visceral, genuine, achingly human theatre experience like Mesa Encore’s August: Osage County isn’t why the AriZoni Awards exist, what is?