Now that Estelle Parsons is getting her August: Osage County crazy-lady act together and is taking it on the road (the tour of Tracy Letts’ 2008 Pulitzer winner begins July 24 in Denver), ex?Cosby Show mom Phylicia Rashad has acquired the leading lady’s silk pajamas, carelessly chopped hairdo, and pesky narcotic habit. It’s fascinating to see an actress who specializes in sassy, take-no-crap survivors (like Lena Younger in 2004’s Raisin in the Sun, for which she won a Tony) and regal, wise women (the 285-year-old Aunt Ester in August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean) descend so deeply into dysfunction and despair. Generally, cluelessness and confusion elude Rashad; she simply can’t hide the knowing glint in her eyes — it’s why she was ultimately miscast as the dim-bulb Big Mama in 2008’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But her smarts suit her well in August: Violet Weston is no dummy. The sexagenarian mother of three may be addicted to drugs — her husband Beverly (now played by John Cullum) ticks off the list: ”Valium. Vicodin. Darvon, Darvocet. Percodan, Percocet. Xanax for fun. OxyContin in a pinch. Some Black Mollies once…And of course Dilaudid” — but, as she likes to say, ”Nobody slips anything by me!” And while she spends her days clattering around her three-story Oklahoma home in a dope-induced haze, she’s remarkably lucid when she needs to dig the knife into one of her daughters — broadcasting over dinner, for example, that her eldest, Barbara (Tony nominee Amy Morton) and her husband, Bill (Frank Wood), have separated — or to spill a world-shattering, long-held secret (we’ll let you discover those on your own — no spoilers here!) in order to deflect attention from her own bad behavior.
Rashad has no problem unearthing Violet’s childlike vulnerability. It’s that she lacks the bite of her predecessors — Parsons and the first Violet, Deanna Dunagan, 2008’s Best Actress Tony winner — and she loses laughs on sure-fire comic zingers: (to her black-pantsuit-clad daughter Ivy, played by Sally Murphy) ”You look like a magician’s assistant”; (to her over-the-top sister Mattie Fae, played by the fabulously over-the-top Elizabeth Ashley) ”You’re about as sexy as a wet cardboard box” and ”The world is round. Get over it.” Incidentally, you can find that last aphorism emblazoned on a t-shirt available for purchase at the Music Box Theatre.
Presumably Rashad’s pill-popping Midwestern matriarch will grow more venomous with time. Meanwhile, her supporting cast couldn’t be finer. It’s a real treat to see the original Weston sisters (Morton, Murphy, and Mariann Mayberry) back together again. Ashley — recently seen on Broadway as the grand Southern matriarch of Dividing the Estate — makes a marvelous fussbudget Mattie Fae. And as poet/alcoholic/absentee dad Beverly Weston, Cullum lives up to — and perhaps even exceeds — the very high standard set by the late Dennis Letts, the playwright’s father, who originated the small but immensely important 20-minute role that begins this intense, three-hour-plus emotional ride. From Cullum’s first world-weary sigh and opening line (”Life is very long —T.S. Eliot”) to the Eliot-echoing, nursery-rhyme-like ending, Letts’ dark comedy remains a devastatingly beautiful creation. A-
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