Out & About: 'August: Osage County' is powerful drama

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One of the most powerful stage dramas in recent years was Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” which opened on Broadway in 2007 and ran a year and a half – a remarkable performance for a straight play. When Good Theater presented its Maine premiere last fall, it broke all of the company’s attendance records, and many wannabe attendees had to be turned away.

So it’s no surprise that artistic director Brian P. Allen decided to bring it back for the 2011-2012 season. And equally remarkably, he’s got 12 of the 13 actors he had last year. “August: Osage County” runs through Nov. 20 at the top of Munjoy Hill in Portland.

Two miles west on Congress Street, One Longfellow Square has an interesting lineup of shows. Singer-songwriter-guitarist Leon Redbone appears on Friday. The James Montgomery Blues Band takes the stage on Saturday and David Peterson’s Old Time Country Revue is featured on Tuesday.

‘August: Osage County’

One of the most powerful American plays in recent decades is Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” a darkly comedic drama about the disintegration, implosion and self-destruction of three generations of a Midwestern family.

The playwright is a member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Company, which first produced the script in 2006. When it transferred to Broadway in 2007, “August: Osage County” won both the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. (It also won four other Tonys.) Good Theater produced the Maine premiere last fall, and it was a sensational success, topping all attendance records in the company’s history.

It’s back for Good Theater’s 2011-2012 season, and its just a powerful as it was last year.

“August: Osage County” is a large, sprawling play with a cast of 13 and a huge set. The original production recreated a three-story house; Good Theater’s set, designed by Steve Underwood, spills out of its available space in all dimensions. Although the formal time span covers only a few weeks, the play extensively revisits long-past episodes in the lives of the characters, giving the impression that decades roll by.

Director Brian P. Allen has assembled a top-notch professional cast. The action mostly revolves around the confrontation of two bitterly opposed characters, an aging woman and her middle-age daughter. The drama begins when patriarch of the family – who describes himself as a “world-class alcoholic” – goes missing and the family gathers at the homestead in rural Oklahoma. The first act concludes with the sheriff announcing that his body has been found at the bottom of a local reservoir, an apparent suicide.

The many conflicts that were set up in the first act reach a climax in the second, and an uneasy resolution is reached in the third.

Both of the two principal women characters get bravura performances. Lisa Stathoplos is sensational as the 65-year-old matriarch of the family, a melancholy, strong-willed woman who is addicted to prescription drugs and possesses a razor-edged tongue. She’s more than matched by Kathleen Kimball as the conflicted daughter who is vainly attempting to keep her own family together – her professor husband is having an affair with one of his college students – while she simultaneously tries to control her mother’s kith and kin.

The language is at times very crude and the entire experience is an emotional roller-coaster. It has much the character of a multi-episode soap opera, as hidden secrets are revealed at regular intervals during the play’s three-hour-plus running time. Several secondary plots are interwoven throughout. Incest and adultery are involved, and each of the 13 characters has to work through his or her own set of demons. Most of them are unsuccessful.

There’s a lot of humor involved, and Letts’ wry observations on many subjects add much to the theatrical experience.

I’ve been attending Good Theater since its inception, and “August: Osage County” is definitely the most powerful drama the company has mounted. I was profoundly impressed by the 2010 production, and the current one is equally good – perhaps even improved in some of the finer points of performance.

Good Theater presents “August: Osage County” at the St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St. (top of Munjoy Hill) in Portland through Nov. 20. Performance times are 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Call Good Theater at 885-5883.

One Longfellow Square

One Longfellow Square, at the western extremity of Portland’s arts district, boasts a top-notch lineup of musicians over the next week. Two of the performers specialize in recreating old-time music and another is a band led by a harmonica player from Boston.

Friday, Nov. 11: Leon Redbone has been touring his one-man vaudeville act for 30-plus years and he’s recorded 15 albums. His specialty is recreating songs that were popular in the first half of the 20th century – music from the ragtime era, the Roaring Twenties, Great Depression and World War II. Accompanying himself on guitar – he’s a master of the finger picking style – Redbone provides an intimate, understated, low-key experience. His costume is part of his shtick: Panama hat, dark sunglasses, white coat, black trousers and black string tie. He’s got quite a legion of fans, including Bonnie Raitt and Bob Dylan.

Saturday, Nov. 12: In 1970, while attending Boston University, James Montgomery formed the James Montgomery Band. His inimitable harmonica playing combined with his incredibly energetic live shows led to the band’s quick climb up the New England music scene ladder. Within two years, the James Montgomery Band was among the hottest acts in Boston – along with J. Geils and Aerosmith – and they were quickly signed to a multi-album deal with Capricorn Records. To date that’s resulted in six releases.

Tuesday, Nov. 15: David Peterson once intended to enter the ministry, but he found his true calling in resurrecting and performing old-time country music. He is best known for forming 1946, a bluegrass band that was numerically named for the starting date of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, the genre’s seminal ensemble. His most recent project is the Old-Time Country Revue, which looks at Nashville music during the 1940s through 1960s, channeling long-ago Grand Ole Opry stars such as Hank Williams Sr. and Jimmy Rogers.

One Longfellow Square is at the corner of Congress and State streets in downtown Portland. All performances are at 8 p.m. Call 761-1757.

Sidebar Elements

Two strong-willed women, played by Lisa Stathoplos, foreground, and Kathleen Kimball, clash in Tracy Letts’ powerful drama, “August: Osage County,” through Nov. 20 at Portland’s Good Theater.