The fierce Violet Weston maintains a remarkable consistency throughout Tracy Letts’ epic comedy-drama “August: Osage County.” The Weston family matriarch collectively eviscerates a table full of her relatives efficiently as she flails them one at a time. From the beginning to the end, she takes no prisoners.In Janis Stevens’ grab-you-by-the-throat performance, Violet seems mostly like a lioness on the hunt. She roars ferociously whenever emerging from frequent narcotic-induced hazes, or she totters about tentatively seeking a stable perch. Make no mistake, though, she will devour you. Violet crouches at the center of the frayed, interwoven family ties, but this center cannot hold and has no desire to.
Set in 2007 in the Weston home on the Oklahoma plains, Letts’ acerbic Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play can be as funny as it is bracing and ruthless. The arresting new production at Capital Stage, meticulously directed by Benjamin T. Ismail, cuts down the middle, delivering laughs amid what feels like personal scorched earth.
The work has an old-fashioned, big American play sensibility (the cast requires 13 actors), and the story unpacks itself in taut scenes moving from quiet poetic near-monologues to operatic ensemble chaos.
Lighting the flame for the bonfire that ensues is the disappearance of father Beverly Weston, whom we see once in the first scene and never again. Bev (Rich Hebert) is hiring a live in-housekeeper/cook to assist the household, which consists of himself and his wife. As he waves his glass of scotch around at Johnna, the young Native American woman he interviews, he makes her understand the job will not be simple. Johnna seems unimpressed, as if she expected nothing less. Besides, she frankly tells him, she needs the money. Johnna (Chiitaanibah Johnson), we learn, is among other things a fine country cook and a taciturn survivor.
Beverly’s disappearance produces an all-hands-on-deck call, and the Weston family assembles. First on the scene is Violet’s flailing sister, Mattie Fae (Jamie Jones), and her dull husband, Charlie (an excellent Harvey T. Jordan). The three daughters, all in their 40s, arrive with more baggage than actual totes. There is the oldest, Barbara (the compelling Amy Resnick), who comes in from Colorado with her estranged husband, Bill (Rick Eldridge), and their 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Jessica Brooks). Middle daughter Ivy (Taylor Burris) lives nearby, and Karen (outstanding Dena Martinez), lives in Florida and has brought her new thrice-married fiancé, Steve (a bright William Glasser).
Beverly produced one great book of poetry as a young writer but never anything else. The haunting shadow of that unlikely success hung over him and then his family as he made a living in academia. The family disputes after his disappearance are a typical litany of intimate grievances, but Letts’ writing and the ensemble’s performances make them fresh and poignant. The long play (three hours) also energizes itself with a deftly unraveling plot flicked with surprises and reversals, which put much of the outrageous behavior into understandable, clear view.
The scene design by Jonathan Williams with Brian Harrower effectively scales down a rambling two-story house into a necessarily more intimate setting. The stories and emotions inside the house are enormous, though, and powerfully told.
August: Osage County
What: Tracy Letts’ Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, directed by Benjamin T. Ismail, with Janis Stevens, Rich Hebert, Jamie Jones, Amy Resnick and others
Where: Capital Stage, 2215 J St., Sacramento
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays through Nov. 20.
Information: (916) 995-5464; capstage.org
Time: 3 hours and 15 minutes, including two intermissions