Somewhere out on the plains of Oklahoma, there is Pawhuska, just 60 miles northwest of Tulsa, a small town hewed from the same Midwestern earth where Norman Rockwell got his material.
And, as anybody who grew up in a small town can tell you, the turf that gives us such Rockwellian images as fresh-squeezed lemonade and quilting bees can also be home to a family orgy of drugs, angry secrets and violence.
This is proven all so well, in Contra Costa Civic Theatre's sterling production of Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County," when Beverly Weston (Richard Friedlander) goes missing. The famous poet and university professor, who has been helping care for his wife, a terminal cancer patient named Violet (Ann Kendrick), is also suspected in the disappearance of a family car and a boat. This leads some to fear the worst -- accident or perhaps suicide.
Slowly, the immediate family begins to gather at the old country home in Pawhuska, and the fuse is lit on an explosive time bomb that has been spitting and sizzling for about as long as this branch of the family has been around.
There is huge anger in this clan; with just about everyone believing, for one reason or another, they got the short end of the branch on the family tree. The dysfunction comes from many quarters, including sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll: sex, which is isn't revealed until the second act; drugs, manifested by Violet's heavy dependence on pain meds and her masterful way of manipulating doctors and pharmacists; and rock 'n' roll, from the mysterious appearance of Eric Clapton's "Slow Hand" album.
The explosive secrets that characterize Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning dark comedy, are hinted at just about from the start of the show, due to the design of Kuo-Hao Lo's set. It is no more than a framework of a large, country home; and the effect is a place that is completely open. All that goes on in the house is easily revealed to the audience as bits and pieces of stories unfold simultaneously.
And you wouldn't want to miss anything. Letts has written a tremendous script for the long, three-act play that not only moves quickly, but makes you hope the intermission will end soon so you can get back to Oklahoma and the revelations in this enormous work, reminiscent of the writing of Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams.
What makes this production in particular work so well is the direction of Marilyn Langbehn, beginning with the casting of wonderfully effective performers. At the center of it all is Kendrick's explosive portrayal of the drug-addicted and mentally unhinged Violet.
The actors all show a remarkable range, able to keep with the play's intensity and its occasional darkly comic flashes. And they all show an ability to portray the stark realism that makes the play, and each character in it, utterly compelling. The performances sustain a heightened intensity that makes it seem as if the characters are revealing their innermost thoughts, unfiltered.
Contact pat Craig at firstname.lastname@example.org.
'AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY'
By Tracy Letts, presented by Contra Costa Civic Theatre
Through: May 4
Where: 951 Pomona Ave.,
Running time: 3 hours,
Tickets: $11-$20, 510-524-9132, www.ccct.org
Note: Contains strong language and intense subject matter; recommended for those 16 and older