Haunted houses

Posted on 05 Apr 2012 at 6:30pm

Family dysfunction plays out in WaterTower’s ‘August’ and KDT’s ‘Screw’

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EVERYTHING’S COMING UP VIOLET | Drug-addicted matriarch Violet (Pam Dougherty) dismisses her philandering son-in-law (James Crawford) in WaterTower’s entertaining ‘August: Osage County.’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

Combine the pill-popping matriarch from Long Day’s Journey into Night, the troika of daughters with unclear loyalties from King Lear, the prosaic tragedy of Death of a Salesman, the incestuousness of Tennessee Williams (take your pick) and the Southern decay of Horton Foote and you approach what’s great about Tracy Letts’ ambitious epic August: Osage County. It’s a pastiche in the canniest, most complimentary way: A play that magpies the best bits of great American drama into something entirely new.

That’s what marks the best writing, actually — the kind that stands up on its own, its brilliance shining through. As Sidney Bruhl remarks in Deathtrap, “It’s so good, even a gifted director couldn’t ruin it.”

Not that director Rene Moreno — or anybody else associated with WaterTower Theatre’s deftly executed production of August — ruins anything. The acting is exemplary and real. But this play can withstand so much more. “This situation is fraught,” observes Mattie Fae (Nancy Sherrard), the blowsy sister of viperfish Violet Weston (Pam Dougherty). That line can be screeched and still feel authentic; this is essential a comedy (a dark one) about a dysfunctional family. Mom is an addict who has driven away her three children and perhaps her husband to suicide. Barbara (Sherry Jo Ward) is separated from her philandering husband (Jim Crawford) but putting on a good face for the others; Mattie Fae has so henpecked Charlie (Tom Lenaghan) he’s almost disappeared.

There are so many currents and undercurrents crossing each other, the audience almost expects to be trapped in the whirlpool of sniping. But most of it is simply played as straight drama, not Southern Gothic. Violet may have grown up poor, but she’s used to prestige and should have the bearing Mama Rose; Mattie Fae, by contrast, is still middle class. The dichotomy should be palpable — this is Violet’s turn — but everyone seems to be holding back. Go big, guys. We’re all Southerners here, we can take it.

But if August is constitutionally capable of more Hot Tin Roof, less cattiness, the play itself is still massively entertaining, where a lot happens and not much does, in a way difficult to explain. The production is a good one, and even though it clocks in just shy of three and a half hours (what, is this opera?), it never drags.

Ward does something I’ve not seen in two prior productions I’ve seen: Make Barbara the can’t-take-your-eyes-off role. With straw hair, the butch look of someone on the LPGA tour and a voice that can trumpet a whine like Felicity Huffman, Ward steals the show, tapping into Barbara’s flawed humanity. Lenaghan gives the production its stealthiest performance, emerging from his wife’s shadow for the best cheer-line monologue in the show. And ultimately, Dougherty breaks your heart with her tragic, misguided Violet. This August doesn’t take the direct route, but it still gets where it needs to go.

Over at Kitchen Dog Theater, we have the obverse: A crackling 80-minute two-hander that delves into Gothic dysfunction in a much more literal way. The Turn of the Screw is the favorite ghost story of the literati, Henry James’ moody, opaque tale of a governess (Jenny Ledel) charged with rearing two orphans. James always kept a mystery about what was really happening — are there really ghosts or is the woman’s sexual frustration manifesting paranoia?

Kitchen Dog’s production doesn’t answer that question any more than James did, as director Christina Vela simply blows through the plot with a minimal set and creepy lighting, eerie music and two gangbuster performances: Ledel and the ingénue hardened by her uncertainty, and Cameron Cobb, spectacularly playing the narrator, the children’s uncle, the young boy and most deliciously a clucking housekeeper. The intensity of the play is like a flashpot that scorches your retinas, leaving you dazzled.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 6, 2012.

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