Cultural Buzz Review: National-Caliber Production Pulses in its Dynamic Delivery

John Busbee,Cultural Buzz blog – March 7, 2017

Broadway attracts the best talent globally to perform on its stages. August: Osage County makes a strong case that more talent on both sides of the curtain resides per capita in our region. Do not hesitate to get your ticket to this production, as opening weekend’s Saturday night sold-out house indicates that this ducat may be a hard one to procure for the procrastinator.

Load up the superlatives, then get to the Kum & Go Theater to submerge yourself in this darkly humorous, masterfully produced co-production of Repertory Theatre of Iowa and StageWest Theatre Company. A perfect storm of script, cast and production values sets a high bar for compelling theatre. This August: Osage County is a masterful presentation of Tracy Letts’ incredible stage play. Developed and introduced in Chicago in 2007, where it won six Jeff Awards, it moved to Broadway the following year. There it garnered five Tony Awards, three Drama Desk Awards, the Drama League Award for Distinguished Production of a Play, three Outer Critics Circle Awards, Best Play from the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards, and a Theatre World Award. Oh, yes, and the Pulitzer Prize. This production reflects that award-winning power in stellar fashion.

During the pre-show, the merging of these two producers was announced. If the new Iowa Stage Theatre Company continues to achieve what it does with August: Osage County, the future is tantalizing. On The Culture Buzz radio program (KFMG 98.9 FM Wednesdays), Director Matthew McIver stated that a director’s most important job is to cast a show well. Gold medal goes to the person McIver took the reins from, Todd Buchacker. This show utilizes the best talent in Central Iowa, masterfully matched with their roles, many of whom could have pursued careers as actors. Once inside the confines of the Kum & Go black box theater space, patrons experience a three-act show that feels like it could have been produced in New York, Chicago, London or Minneapolis. This one, however, is in Greater Des Moines, setting a benchmark for how well theatre can be produced in this market.

Letts drops his story into the searing August climate of Oklahoma, in the Weston home where patriarch Beverly, played with ironic charm by Richard Maynard, delivers a tone-setting, alcohol-laden foundation for his dysfunctional (with a capital “D”) family. This brilliant prologue introduces his new hire, Johnna (with JoLynn Evans giving her role the exacting balance between fulfilling her duties as cook and caretaker for Violet Weston, while keeping separate from the family quagmire), and introduces Violet, the family matriarch played with rich complexity by Kim Grimaldi, in a drug-induced cloud. This brief scene provides the cornerstone for Beverly’s disappearance and the subsequent convening of the family, with its often explosive unraveling from the demons, imperfections and resentments when gross human flaws meet unbudgeability with fire and gasoline volatility.

A richly layered and textured scenic design greets those entering the theater. By the end of the play, Jagim’s August: Osage County design looks as if Letts himself had envisioned it to be produced in this space. As the show proceeds, the brilliance of his design becomes apparent, with seamless shifting between scenes and settings. Ably supporting Jagim’s design work is Jim Trenberth’s lighting, from the mood-enhancing of backlit upstage walls to the laser-focus illumination for each setting. All these visuals are wrapped in the aural mastery of Josh Jepson’s sound design. Jepson’s knowledge is as musically diverse and massive as an Oxford dictionary. Perfectly connecting scene shifts, underscoring the production and escalating moods and tones, Jepson delivers one of his best. Deftly finishing the visual profile for this show is the costuming team lead by designer Emily Ganfield, with Kevin Barron handling wardrobe responsibilities.

This superb cast excels as each character’s stage presence and each line delivered keeps fueling the story’s progress. With every entrance, exit, and scene, a powerful shift in dynamics happens with rare effectiveness. McIver’s guidance builds this theatrical gem while giving his uber-talented ensemble enough free rein to fully develop their characters. Special kudos belong to Grimaldi, with her highs and lows, keeping the family off balance while her razor-sharp tongue slices to the core weaknesses of each person who dares to challenge her. Delivering at the same level of authenticity and power is Nancy Zubrod as Vi’s sister, Mattie. Zubrod squeezes every bit of character humor out of her role, creating a delightful onstage presence. Karla Kash brings the full spectrum of her experience and talents to her Barbara, one of Vi’s daughters and an increasingly recognizable reflection of her mother.

Everyone in this ensemble contributes, making his or her scene a vital, vibrant piece of Letts’ complex story puzzle. Jonathan deLima’s affable, philandering Bill, Barbara’s husband; their daughter, Jean, given rebellious selfishness by Molly Mayne; Kerry Skram as the sacrificing daughter, Ivy, showing exceptional nuances in her role; and flighty, self-absorbed AlissTschetter-Siedschlaw’s portrayal of the third daughter, Karen. Mattie’s husband, Charlie, blossoms to full easy-going life thanks to the gifted Tom Geraty, while Shawn Wilson brings another pitch-perfect persona to his Little Charles, their son. As Karen’s slick fiancé, Steve, Thomas Eckerman gives his role plenty of sleaze. James Serpento shows how a role, regardless of stage time, ably enhances the plot with his easy-going Sheriff. Trying to single any one person out is not only impossible, but unfair to this entire ensemble. That’s akin to praising the sugar in a complex blue-ribbon cake recipe – it’s the measured inclusion of all its ingredients that makes this ensemble so vibrant, so real, so powerful. The result is a theatrical culinary masterpiece.

Although filled with plenty of crude, rough language and references, these edges are absolutely necessary to the overall impact of this incredible production of August: Osage County. To miss this tour de force show would be to miss one of the best productions presented not only this season, but in many years. Get your tickets now – it only runs through March 19.