By Manning Harris
fmanningh@gmail.com

This is the big one.  Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” winner of the 2008 Pulitzer, the Tony for Best Play, and unanimous acclaim as the best American play in years.  If the Alliance Theatre had messed this up, they would have had to send back that Tony Award that perches proudly in the theatre foyer.

But they haven’t messed it up:  On the contrary, this searing masterpiece is now the Alliance’s finest hour; it is must-see theatre, and it runs through May 8, so get your tickets now.

They say for complete success in the theatre you start with a great script; then you must cast it correctly.  Check, and check.  Director Susan V. Booth has assembled the 13 best actors in the city and guided them magnificently into giving the performances of their lives.  (Okay, there are other fine actors around, of course, but with “August” we must deal in superlatives, so please give me a break.)

Sophocles taught us 2400 years ago in “Oedipus” that for tragic drama we must focus on the family, as they say.  So let’s turn to the Westons of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, 60 miles northwest of Tulsa.  Beverly, the alcoholic poet-patriarch (flawlessly played by Del Hamilton) has one scene before he walks into that good night, but not before disclosing, “My wife takes pills, and I drink.  That’s the bargain we’ve struck.”  This family could have problems.  Good-bye, Daddy.

Then the couple’s three daughters assemble, ostensibly to comfort the terrifying matriarch Violet (Brenda Bynum).  It becomes apparent that it isn’t she who needs comforting:  “I’m just truth-telling.  Some people get antagonized by the truth,” she says.  Or eviscerated.

Barbara, the oldest (and strongest) daughter (Tess Malis Kincaid, in a revelatory performance) arrives with her estranged husband Bill (Chris Kayser) and their precocious, pot-smoking 14-year-old daughter Jean (Bethany Anne Lind).  Mattie Fae (Jill Jane Clements), Violet’s shrill sister, shows up with her husband Charlie (Richard Garner) and their 37-year-old son, whom much of the family calls Little Charles (Andrew Benator), who seems extremely close with Violet’s daughter Ivy (Carolyn Cook).  The third daughter is Karen (Courtney Patterson), who arrives with her fiance Steve (Joe Knezevich), a smooth-talking charmer.  Johnna, a Native American servant (“Are you an Indian?” Violet tactfully asks) is played by Diany Rodriguez.  Bart Hansard plays Sheriff Deon.

The three sisters have incredible chemistry; they even look alike, especially in Act III.  Yes, this is a three-act, three-hour play, with two fast intermissions; and they’re probably the fastest three hours you’ll ever spend in a theatre.  Now then:  Every family has its problems, right?  So we’ll have no fainting in the aisles over a little alcohol and drug addiction, incest, emotional abuse, or possible suicide.  And there’s a lot of laughter here—really—just wait!  “My point is, it’s not cut and dried, black and white, good and bad.  It lives where everything lives: somewhere in the middle,” says Karen.

I wish I had space to single out more individual performances and moments.  I saw the original Broadway cast, and Deanna Dunagan, who won a Tony, was unforgettable as Violet; Ms. Bynam may not quite have her snippety snarl, but she’s marvelous and moving nonetheless.  As I mentioned, Tess Malis Kincaid truly comes into her own in a thrilling, subtle, commanding performance.  Most of the actors know one another in real life (Ms. Booth wanted that), and while that’s not a prerequisite for excellence, it may have worked some extra magic here.

Bottom line:  You like theatre?  You can’t miss “August: Osage County.”

For tickets and information, visit www.alliancetheatre.org.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.