Fear and humor in the Midwest: EPAC stages ‘August Osage County’

By on March 25, 2015

After every EPAC opening night performance theatergoers are treated to access to an after-party where the actors and actresses of the show mingle with the crowd. The venues rotate throughout the season, but there is always a cash bar and a variety of appetizers supplied by the establishment.

Many of the people at the after-party are longtime patrons of the arts and have opinions on and experiences with many productions. This was true Thursday, March 19, at the American Legion Post 429 (conveniently located directly across the parking lot from the Sharadin Bigler Theatre). The opinion of many opening night viewers: EPAC’s rendition of Tracy Letts’ “August Osage County” was the best version they had ever seen.

The deeply dark comedy directed by Edward Fernandez tells the tale of the Weston family as they come to grips with each others’ tragedies. As adults, the children of Violet Weston (Elizabeth Pattey) have returned home after their father, Beverly (Larry Gessler), disappears.

Violet is a pill-popping mess and the entire family goes through so much whiskey the setting for this drama should be Lincoln County, Tenn., instead of northeastern Oklahoma. Oldest daughter Barbara is a control freak, which has led to her separation from her husband Bill (Ken Seigh) and estrangement from her teenage daughter Jean (Natalie Young). The other sisters are not married. The youngest, Karen (Lynne DeMers-Hunt), is a bubbly, busy little vixen who gabs incessantly about herself and her new fiancée, Steve. Steve (Bob Checchia) is a shady Florida businessman who gets his eyes — and eventually his hands — on the 14-year old Jean. The middle daughter, Ivy (Sharon Mellinger), is doltish and cynical; she is desperate to stand up to her mother and be accepted for who she is. Ivy is secretly dating her first cousin, but, without spoiling a hilarious — in the most horrible of ways — twist later in the play, this is not the worst case scenario.

The cousin, “Little” Charles (Bob Breen), is a full grown man and the offspring of Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (Tricia Corcoran). Mattie Fae and Violet can be ridiculously callous and devilishly demeaning. When their tongues get wagging family members hope to not be the focus … except for Barbara who eventually shouts “I’m in charge!” to mark the shows climax.

EPAC actors (left to right) Elizabeth Pattey as Violet; Susan Kresge as Barbara; and Ken Seigh as Bill; in a scene from the Ephrata Performing Arts Center’s “August: Osage County.” (LNP photo)

EPAC actors (left to right) Elizabeth Pattey as Violet; Susan Kresge as Barbara; and Ken Seigh as Bill; in a scene from the Ephrata Performing Arts Center’s “August: Osage County.” (LNP photo)

The whole family is a twisted tangle of secrets and lies. The most truthful person is Johanna (Emily Kuhns). She’s been hired on by Beverly just days before he disappears. Her task is to take care of Violet, who is suffering through oral cancer — and a bad case of prescription drug addiction. Pattey, who has been recently seen on the EPAC stage in “Death of a Salesman,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” and “Assassins,” gives her most powerful performance to date. Wickedly funny and brutally harsh, Violet often relies on the others to become punching bags for her dark humor and ill-timed utterance of family secrets. No one receives more pounding from the pugilist as Barbara. Pattey and Gessler work together seamlessly, delivering the woeful tale of the Westons.

My eyes were glued to the stage and I didn’t want the production to end. “August Osage County” runs nearly three hours in three acts with two intermissions. I would have liked to stay longer and wonder at the caustic world captured in Pawhuska, Okla.. It’s hard to surround death and woe with humor. It’s even harder to apply it live onstage. The entire cast had perfect timing and all but one or two jokes hit perfectly. There isn’t much gut busting humor; “August Osage County” humor is more shocking and worth every bit of the pain it works off.

It would be impossible to maintain my allotted column inches with everything great I could gush on and on over about the cast of “August Osage County.” There are no weak players here. Special consideration should also be given to the production team behind this amazing spectacle: Zach Smith, assistant director and music supervisor; sound engineer Dakota Leaman; production manager Michael Wiltraut, stage manager Jamie Latshaw; prop master Angie Fasnacht; technical director Steve Schelling; costume designer Veronica Craig; and Joe Boufford on lights. Once again, another masterful set was created by Mike Rhoads.

Theater fans who braved the show known to include language rougher than a veteran sailor (I can say this; I was in the Navy) combined with the fear of a late season snow storm were treated to one of the most powerful performances ever to hit the EPAC stage. The entire cast and crew brought alive and honored the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama-winning show.

Michael C. Upton works as a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure covering subjects ranging from funk punk to fine wine. He invites your comments and suggestions at 354-0609.

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