The Game of Thrones, with whiskey and pills
When I say one of the best moments onstage was incomprehensible, I mean it as a compliment. Director Matthew McIver has brought off a wow of a show in “August: Osage County,” wringing the recent Pulitzer winner for every last hoot of laughter and gasp of horror. Often these erupt one right after the other, and early in the second act they overlap — wonderfully.
By then, following the funeral of the family patriarch, all the damaged Westons have gathered, including siblings and significant others. They fill the three-tiered set, Jay Jagim’s trickster version of a rambling farmhouse, like Sears & Roebuck with trap doors. Downstage right, old wounds are seeping through the strained goodwill of two sisters. Upstage left, a third sister’s under siege by two older women, prying into her love life. Elsewhere we’ve got a wayward son bristling at Dad’s questions, a stalker after a vulnerable teenage girl, and soon enough the scene erupts into bedlam. Everyone’s talking at once.
In one sense, it’s incomprehensible, but in another it couldn’t be clearer. Who doesn’t understand hurt feelings? The pain sings through the uproar, which ends on just the right note — timed to the perfection at the Kum & Go. As the scene blacks out, a last line hangs in the air: “It’s hard for everyone, Mama!”
Mama has everything to do with it, too. Old Violet, the patriarch’s widow, cares about her painkillers first and anything else a distant second. As for her late husband, his lone scene at the play’s opening leaves no question about his drug of choice. He’s always got a whiskey in his hand, and as the story goes on, his three grown daughters likewise take to the bottle. Indeed, Tracy Letts’ 2007 drama could be described as one long lost weekend. Middle America is endlessly self-medicating, in his vision, and family ties are no match for the ravages of addiction. Yet the script also throbs with humanity. Everyone nurses some scheme for happiness, and this gives rise to fascinating complications.
The audience, that is, has plenty to root for — but Barb, the oldest sister, raises a grim warning against getting your hopes up. “It’s a good thing we can’t see the future,” Barb declares. “We’d never get out of bed.”
Gallows humor like that pops up everywhere, and even the most hapless players get off firecracker lines. But the best jokes, as funny as they are vicious, belong to Violet and her oldest daughter. Both are smart women, resourceful, but let down terribly by their husbands; between them develops a tug of war, and this allows Kim Grimaldi and Karla Kash to deliver a cutthroat duet beyond anything I’ve seen in Des Moines.
The men in the production have their moments. Richard Maynard, in his few minutes onstage as the father, evokes a battle-hardened weariness every time he hoists his glass. But it’s a matriarchy that rules Osage County.
In the struggle between Queens, Grimaldi has the better footwork, suggesting a bantamweight in the WWF. She dances around any challenge, then hits her accuser with a knee-drop, right where it hurts. Kash, however, wields a voice that might be a volcano; when she erupts, cities tumble. Even the lines that make you laugh leave you cringing, and even when Kash goes soft, for instance pleading with her estranged husband, you hear the knives clatter in her throat. To see superheroes at war, skip the Cineplex; downtown, you’ll find a better battle by far.
“August: Osage County”
Kum & Go Theater, StageWest & Repertory Theater of Iowa
Wednesday – Saturday, March 8-18, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, March 12 and 19, 2 p.m.
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere.