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'August: Osage County': They Cry Until We Laugh

Spilled secrets that are the stuff of a juicy soap opera. Familial bad behavior that stops short of Greek tragedy. Can one Oklahoma household contain such cataclysmic melodrama?

August: Osage County”, which just opened at the Curran Theater, is a super-sized family saga in which misery and affliction rain down in Greek proportions. A family closet bursts open and every skeleton you can imagine tumbles out.

Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer and Tony-winning tragi-comedy is three and one half hours of domestic discord, divorce, death, disease, addiction and infidelity. It's also really really funny?

The play, which opened on Broadway in 2007, comes to San Francisco starring Estelle Parsons as a matriarch of the Weston family. She’s venomously nasty to her daughters by day and a babbling, shuffling pitiful pill-popper by night.

When Violet Weston’s drunkard of an erudite husband goes missing, the not particularly close-knit family returns to their Oklahoma home. They’re there ostensibly to rally together; instead they erupt and unravel.

Letts’ focus on plural substance abuse and inter-generational verbal abuse -- and character assassination recalls the intensity of Eugene O’Neil’s domestic nightmares.  And the Weston daughters’ guilt and blame about who stays to help and who get to free herself recalls Tennessee Williams. But Letts uses a razor sharp wit which distinguishes this drama. The often surprising black humor balances out the hurt and hurtfulness so that the play avoids a pretentious overreach. It’s not a Heavyweight Tragedy and it doesn't try to be one.

Shannon Cochran stands out as Barbara, the eldest of three daughters who has moved far away from home and returns infrequently.  But her own family, with its half-gone husband and precocious teen daughter, is no bed of roses either.

Barbara is the wittiest quipster in a family of scoffers and scorners. And she’s relatively sane. Her sisters seem to be finding love in all the wrong places, as did the older generation years ago.  Of that generation, Mattie Fae Aiken is particularly strong as Violet’s sister, Libby, who shares her sister’s qualities of cruelty and loyalty.

Angelica Torn and Amy Warren play Violet’s two younger daughters, Ivy and Karen. Torn is great as Ivy, the only daughter who stays put in Osage Country to bear the brunt of her mother’s endless criticism. She may cross the line in her coping mechanisms, but, at the Weston household, lines are crossed so often, there’s nearly a traffic jam.

But under Anna D. Shapiro’s sharp direction, the culmination of woes may seem improbable, but never absurdly so. 

Scandals and revelations unfold on every branch of the family tree and in every room of the three story house. Todd Rosenthal’s engaging set design looks like a life-sized doll house, where each room (plus porch) is lit up, in turn, to showcase a new scene and a fresh new hell.

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