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By Beki Pineda

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY. Written by Tracy Letts; directed by Bernie Cardell. Produced by Vintage Theatre (1469 Dayton St., Aurora) through Oct. 15, 2017. Tickets available at 303-856-7830 or vintagetheatre.org.

The Weston family reunion will make your last Thanksgiving with the in-laws look like a walk in the park.  So much resentment, disappointment, repressed anger and deception abound that it becomes a mental guessing game as to where a next node of nastiness will rear its head. Yet while you barely believe your eyes and ears, you can’t help laughing at the absurdity of it all. In addition to being harsh and startling, this is a very funny theater evening.

The story starts with Beverly Weston (Roger Hudson), the patriarch of a family of three daughters, a wife addicted to pills, and assorted relatives, interviewing a local Oklahoma girl as a maid and caretaker for his wife. Our first view of Violet (Deborah Persoff), his wife who needs the caretaker, is as an addled, decrepit old lady struggling down a long flight of stairs one tread at a time. When the pills kick in and she has energy to spare, she is offhandedly racist, unblinkingly cruel and viciously sarcastic. It is sadly ironic that she needs the pills because she has cancer in her mouth—karma in action.

As the daughters arrive, the vindictiveness notches up. Barbara (Haley Johnson), the oldest and the only one to produce a grandchild, is facing trouble in her marriage and has moved to another state to escape her mother. Karen (Lauren Bahlman), the middle daughter, has been unlucky in love but is now determined to marry her current boyfriend, no matter how unworthy. Ivy (Kelly Uhlenhopp) is the only one who has stayed in Oklahoma to help care for her parents—for her own very private reasons. Also taking their seats around the family table are Violet’s sister Mattie (Darcy Kennedy), Mattie’s husband (John Ashton) and son (Brandon Palmer); Barbara’s husband (Marc Stith) and teenage daughter (Kaitlin Weinstein); and Karen’s sleazy boyfriend (Andrew Uhlenhopp). The sheriff (Stephen Krusoe), who just happens to have been Barbara’s first boyfriend, shows up to deliver bad news. Johnna (Emily Gerhard), the maid Beverly hired before he disappears, proves to be a quietly competent presence in an otherwise chaotic household.

The twists and turns of these old, and in some cases new, relationships propel the story. No one is spared; everyone has a secret they are trying to hold in, but in the heightened emotion of a death in the family, all is revealed. Violet manipulates and bullies everyone in the family. The only kind words she has are for her sister, until she admits to thinking she’s as dumb as a brick. The only person who comes off as having any kind of spine is Mattie’s husband, who finally stands up to his domineering wife in defense of his son. It’s the one time in the whole play when you feel like actually cheering for someone. The family traditions of alcoholism and despair seem to be sadly coming full circle as the play ends with Barbara at her father’s desk in a rambling conversation with Johnna, drinking from her father’s bottle of Scotch.

The set is a spacious living/dining room combination with a separate library/den. It creates a slightly cluttered, claustrophobic feeling that suits these challenging relationships. Designed and dressed by Kortney Hanson, it contributes greatly to the mood of the play. The subtle lighting by Steve Tangedal, and the poignant mood music between scenes, designed by Luke Rahmsdorff-Terry, also enhanced the sound and sight picture. Susan Rahmsdorff-Terry found the perfect red dress for Violet in a sea of dark clothes to make her the center of attention for the family dinner. Director Bernie Cardell kept the stakes high while allowing the surprises in the script to both shock and amuse. It helped immensely that he has a nearly perfect cast for this production.

One more thing that pleased this watcher: There are quite a few scene breaks in the story. Instead of taking the usual blackouts and making people stumble off and on the stage, Tangedal’s lights went to a “brownout” while the cast, in character,  went about their business unhurriedly, talking quietly to one another, picking up something naturally to move it off or on stage, moving at a leisurely pace to the nearest door. They may have been scrambling like crazy once they got off stage to get into another costume or find another prop, but while they were on stage, they allowed the audience to believe they were the same character they were when the lights were on. So few theaters do that. Kudos to all for this accomplishment.

This is a play that will make you want to go home and hug your nearest relative and call that sister you’ve been fighting with—just in gratitude that your family can’t possibly be as twisted as this one.

WOW factor: 9.5!