Estelle Parsons is fiercely roaring, cackling and medicating her way through a breathtaking performance at the Ahmanson Theatre. Okay, so the 86-year-old star is not actually taking drugs, but her character, Violet Weston, pops more pills than a post-op root canal patient. The play is August: Osage County, a 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner and winner of five Tony Awards. It’s a tale of life on the Plains, centering on an Oklahoma homestead where the Weston family has been falling apart for decades.
Beverly Weston (Jon Devries) kicks off the three-and-a-half hour tale of the tormented Weston clan, launching into a drunken monologue at the top of the show, a painful bit of commentary on the agonizingly slow march of time. The aging patriarch subsequently walks out of his drug-dependent wife’s world for good, leaving his three adult daughters to pick up the pieces. Enter Barbara (Shannon Cochran), Karen (Amy Warren), and Ivy (Angelica Torn), the latter of whom has never strayed far from home, playing the dutiful caretaker of her addiction-addled parents. But Barbara and Karen are home for the first time in years, bringing with them a slew of marital problems, displaced anger and denial.
Simply put, the play is a study in family dysfunction, a Long Day’s Journey Into Night for our times. Unlike Mary Tyrone, however, Violet Weston is an external processor who makes no bones about spewing the vitriolic stew of her inner pain all over her offspring. Cochran is brilliant as the seemingly well-adjusted eldest sister, who swoops in to save the day upon dad’s demise. The fissures in her outwardly healthy disposition don’t show up until she’s alone with her husband, Bill (Jeff Still), a college professor who long ago wrote off his “hard-ass” wife, opting instead to shack up with a student. The two actors spar so authentically, I found myself muttering support for Barbara under my breath. But playwright Tracy Letts doesn’t let any of his characters off the moral hook, and I soon began to understand why being married to Barbara might drive a man insane.
As the two other siblings, Warren and Torn also turn in fine performances, the former beaming and chirping about her character’s new, perfect husband, who we soon find out has the slime factor of a large slug. While Barbara assumes the role of stressed-out head of household, and Karen turns a blind eye to her husband’s sleaziness, Ivy is getting it on with a relative.
The play is essentially one big family fight, with multiple insights into the inheritance of emotional and mental instability. If you think you can grow up in the Weston family unscathed, think again. It’s also a gasp-inducing laugh riot, as Violet seems to revel in finding out just how low she can go. Parsons makes the antagonistic matriarch entirely mesmerizing, a speech-slurring, drug-addicted time bomb we can’t stop watching. Anna D. Shapiro directs the family shit-storm with precision. Todd Rosenthal’s set is a house perfectly built for all this feuding.
Through October 18 at the Ahmanson Theatre. Call 213.628.2772.