Mesa Encore Theatre's August: Osage County (the Play, Not the Movie) Is Subtle, Powerful

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The setup: Tracy Letts' epic, relentlessly dismal yet moving and entertaining August: Osage County won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and came through Tempe on a national tour four years ago. Since then, Julia Roberts and Ewan McGregor have grown old enough to play middle-aged in the film version released last month.

Nobody else is Meryl Streep, who's nominated for an Oscar for the challenging role of Violet Weston in the movie, but, putting that aside, Osage was created to be experienced as live stage work and is much more effective and satisfying that way, including at Mesa Encore Theatre for the rest of this weekend.

See also: Curtains: iTheatre Collaborative's Bug at Herberger The execution: Yes, there really are 13 characters in this show, and while three of them appear only briefly, they are as vital to the story as any of the others. The dispersed relatives of an alcoholic Oklahoma poet reunite at the family home in a time of crisis, and everything that's been simmering boils over.

The play is more than three hours long. That's not a terrible thing, but it's good to know ahead of time. Letts' mastery of dialogue, along with the uniformly excellent timing and dynamic variation of the cast, directed by Phillip Fazio (Ragtime, Next to Normal, Proof, Grey Gardens), keep things humming along.

Shari Watts (A Devil Inside, Sons of the Prophet, and lots of other good stuff) assays the role of Violet with a heartbreaking resignation that never quite masks her pain. Vi is one of the nastiest, most unpleasant characters in contemporary drama, and Letts cleverly gives her cancer and a crappy childhood to help the audience (let alone her family) tolerate her, but Watts would be able to sell her raging pill habit and torrent of insults anyway, because she's just that good.

There's one thing about the script that bothers me in retrospect, even though it's probably one of its most realistic elements: Everybody's life is completely awful. Yes, they've gotten together on an unhappy occasion, but they were already circling the drain when they arrived. Yes, they're continuing a chain of neglect and abuse, but some people get better.

During the play, this isn't so noticeable because of the well-known funny parts, which are genuinely funny for genuine reasons (and also make the show unsuitable for children). Nevertheless, a couple of characters, including eldest daughter Barbara (Christi Sweeney), are so miserable that their punch lines sometimes fall flat. (Although sometimes they don't; here's everyone's favorite Barbara speech:)

"Greatest Generation," my ass. Are they really considering all the generations? Maybe there are some generations from the Iron Age that could compete. And what makes them so great anyway? Because they were poor and hated Nazis? Who doesn't fucking hate Nazis?

The script's touted splashes of mystery and surprise are rather weak, as well, but the ensemble's performances ably contain all these loose ends like a championship cattle dog.

Brett Aiken's set design falls just on the functional side of ugly and confusing, which is disappointing because he's a talented designer who probably faced a shortage of resources and a difficult space in which to fit a three-story home that also requires several scenes to be played on a porch that hovers stage right like an unfinished, inside-out afterthought. (You literally have to tell yourself, "I guess that's the porch.") The upside is that that the set often recedes into the background, not calling too much attention to itself.

The verdict: MET has met a huge challenge by focusing on the most obvious and reliable strengths available to a production of August: Osage County: casting, acting, and direction. The subtle and powerful connection with live performers who are only 20 or 30 feet away will wrap you in the script's significance the way a movie can never do. The video preview below is nicely produced (which is rare, in general, for stage work) and will give you a fair idea:

August: Osage County continues through Sunday, February 9, at Mesa Arts Center, One East Main Street. Call 480-644-6500 for tickets, $22 to $25, or order here.

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