Pulitzer Prize Winner “August: Osage County” triumphs at OpenStage

Denise Freestone is Flawless as Heavily-Flawed, Pill-Popping Family Matriarch

Reviewed by Tom Jones
February 19, 2017

The sustained applause at the conclusion of “August: Osage County” was an unusual display of approval. The opening night audience had been in their seats for more than three hours, but was in no hurry to leave the theatre, as the cheering, standing ovation was endless. The play is one of the most interesting productions performed in northern Colorado in recent memory.

Denise Burson Freestone as Violet Weston in OpenStage Theatre’s production of August: Osage County by Tracy Letts, photography by Joe Hovorka Photography

Denise Burson Freestone and Bruce K. Freestone, Founders of OpenStage, took substantial risk in bringing the award-winning play to Colorado. Looking at a family in turmoil is not a particularly pleasant subject. The cast is large. The set is large. The play’s duration is long. The language is foul. And the show is a winner.

Bruce portrays Beverly Weston, a poet whose fame reached its pinnacle many years earlier. He is now an alcoholic, unhappy with life. Denise plays his wife, Violet, who is suffering from oral cancer and is trapped in her own world of pills and cigarettes. They live separate lives under the same roof of their home in Osage County, Oklahoma, not far from Tulsa. The father’s alcoholism and the mother’s addictions have driven two of their three daughters to move far away, leaving only a lonely unmarried daughter nearby.

August in Oklahoma can be very warm, with temperatures rising even higher as brutish characters are engaged in heated insults. It is as if we are watching four volcanos erupting hot lava, but realizing it is only the family matriarch and her three daughters spewing vicious venom.

When the play begins, family Patriarch Beverly, is interviewing Johanna, a local Cheyenne played by Jennifer Lauren Bowers, to become the housekeeper and cook. Her own life is in shambles. She doesn’t say much, but claims to be interested in the position as a live-in, and silently tries to ignore the ongoing mayhem. Beverly turns up missing, and the daughters are summoned home, only to learn that his remains have been found – and a funeral is now in order.

Rachael Jacobs as Jean Fordham, Jennifer Lauren Bowers as Johnna Monevata, Nicole Gawronski as Ivy Weston, Bas Meindertsma as Little Charles Aiken, Sydney Parks Smith as Barbara Fordham, Shannon Parr as Bill Fordham, Denise Burson Freestone as Violet Weston, Judith Allen as Mattie Fay Aiken, James Burns as Steve Heidebrecht and Rebecca Spafford as Karen Weston in OpenStage Theatre’s production of August: Osage County by Tracy Letts, photography by Joe Hovorka

The play’s first act was a little difficult, as I could not understand everything that was said. The second act, however, is an absolute wonder. The family clan has assembled at the Weston home for dinner following the funeral. The meal is hopefully nothing like we’ll every personally experience. There are 13 talented persons in the cast. Most of them are seated at the table, shoveling food and caustic remarks. The direction and choreography of bringing that dinner to the stage is something rarely seen in the theater. Dulcie Willis is director of the play. She has remarkable skills, and keeps the action moving as if we are seeing life in motion – not merely a play!

Denise’s matriarch character, Violet, rules the roost. Denise is an accomplished actress and is at her absolute best as the highly-charged addict — screaming one moment, calmly discussing the family the next. Despite her veil of addiction, during her lucid moments Violet can see what is happening with everyone in the home. Two of the Weston daughters have followed her path of hostility. Sydney Parks Smith is dynamite as Barbara Fordham, who is as strong-willed as her mother, and whose marriage is on the rocks. Rebecca Spafford is equally charged as Karen Weston, a daughter who moved as far away as she could – to Florida. She returns to the family with her latest romance in tow. Steve Heidebrecht is the sleazy new boyfriend – even his suit is shiny. The third daughter, Ivy, played with conviction by Nicole Gawronski, has a less showy role. She prefers to remain out of the limelight of her over-the-top sisters. When Barbara and Karen Weston go at one another, all air is sucked from the theatre.

Shannon Parr is excellent as Bill Fordham, Barbara’s husband. He is tired of his wife’s ruthless disposition and has found someone more civil to love. Their daughter, Jean, played by Rachel Jacobs is a 15-year-old (15-going-on-40) who has no fear.

Sydney Parks Smith as Barbara Fordham, Denise Burson Freestone as Violet Weston, Bruce K. Freestone as Beverly Weston, Rachael Jacobs as Jean Fordham, Nicole Gawronski as Ivy Weston, Bas Meindertsma as Little Charles Aiken, Charlie Ferrie as Charlie Aiken, Judith Allen as Mattie Fay Aiken, Rebecca Spafford as Karen Weston, James Burns as Steve Heidebrecht, Mark Terzani as Sheriff Deon Gilbeau, Shannon Parr as Bill Fordham, and Jennifer Lauren Bowers as Johnna Monevata in OpenStage Theatre’s production of August: Osage County by Tracy Letts, photography by Joe Hovorka Photography

Judith Allen and Charlie Ferrie play Mattie Fae and Charlie Aiken. Mattie Fae is Violet’s sister who does her best to keep her spitefulness in control – just barely. (Little) Charlie, their adult son is played by Bas Meindertsma. Rounding out the amazing cast is Mark Terzani as the local sheriff who turns up at the family home to report that the remains of the family patriarch have been found. He knows more about the family than some realize.

The play received the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for its author, Tracey Letts. Letts was a finalist for the Pulitzer honor in 2004 for his Play, “Man from Nebraska.” He has written screenplays and received the Tony Award in 2013 for his performance in a Broadway revival as George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Letts is a native of Oklahoma. A movie version of the play, starring Meryl Streep, was released in 2013.

This is not a jolly, “Let’s have a summer picnic” celebration. It is a hard-nosed recounting of a family in continual turmoil. The set is a treat of its own – several levels of living, dining, sleeping and porch visiting. Lighting and sound are excellent.

Patrons are alerted that the play is in three acts, with two brief intermissions. It contains adult subject matter and adult (i.e. foul) language. It is also one of the most interesting productions currently on stage in the area.

“August: Osage County”
Where: OpenStage Theatre production, on the Magnolia Theatre Stage of Lincoln Center.
417 West Magnolia Street, Fort Collins.
When: Through March 18, 2017
Tickets: 970/221-6730
For more information: www.openstage.com

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