Student actors thrill and haunt in adult drama-comedy about the dark side of the modern American family

By Sarah Gamard

(Carl Wycoff/Flickr)
(Carl Wycoff/Flickr)

The stage was set in Bowker Auditorium from Thursday until Saturday for a performance of August: Osage County. The story unfolded in the rooms of a modern, Midwestern family home. A record player, lamps and other typical furniture that adorned the house suggested hidden despair behind the overtly normal appearance.

Indeed, the Oklahoma family did face their share of troubles in the unexpected and mysterious loss of a husband and father. The father, a poet, professor and alcoholic mysteriously leaves his three daughters and loved ones behind, prompting the family to then take care of their mother.

As the family rejoins after years of estrangement, it becomes apparent as to why the daughters travelled so far away from home and the father disappeared. Dark secrets bubble to the surface, ranging from incest to pedophilia to divorce. Plates are shattered and faces are slapped.

The play was hosted by the UMass Theatre Guild. Most actors were UMass students with some from the Five College Consortium. As they moved about the stage, complaining about the heat, it  was hard to remember that these actors were not really the characters, or even professionals, but rather students that we pass by everyday on the way to class.

The audience was, many times, rendered not only to complete silence but to complete stillness while the plot unfolded. During the three hours of production, the audience’s attention did not wander for a moment, partially because it may have been impossible not to see one’s own self in at least one, if not many, of the characters.

Anna Meehan played Violet, the pill-popping matriarch, repeatedly moving between disdainful sobriety and drug-induced euphoria. Meehan had an impeccable interpretation of a drug addict mother, pushing her loved ones away while simultaneously fearing abandonment.

Christie Basinas played Barbara, who is the most responsible and Violet-esque of the three daughters. Barbara is cold, with the pressure of the entire family weighing on her shoulders. Basinas conveyed this not just through her voice, which dripped with repressed, unadulterated rage at the turmoil of her character’s life, but even in the frustrated way she walked or ate dessert at the dinner table.

Jack Duff, who played her separated husband, was more soft-spoken but equally tense. Their dynamic was a portrait of many married couples – one tortured spouse aggressively pushing the other away, confusing them and ultimately driving them out when all they actually want is love and support.

Hallie Waletzko, a first-year student at Hampshire College, played their daughter, Jean. Displaying a typical 14-year-old rebelling against her parents through drug use and sex, Jean is a character of her own. Her character was easily relatable to any teenager of divorced or divorcing parents, but also a mirror for the misconception of responsibility and control in one’s life as one gets older.

Jack Boyd-Dias played Steve, the dubious fiancé to Karen. Karen was played by Emily Hamel, the ditsiest of the three sisters who wore her heart on her sleeve.

Miranda Burrage-Goodwin played the more comically oriented Mattie Fae, Violet’s sister. Her stage husband, Charlie, was played by Greg Mahoney. Sevrin Willinder played their son, Little Charles. The three formed the adjacent family that was separate in ways from the turmoil of the household, but also wrapped up in their own dark and intertwining secrets.

Ashlyn Stromgren played Ivy, the quietest and most secretive of the three sisters who arguably surprised the audience the most when those secrets were revealed. Lucille Boco played Johanna, the hired help of the household who is the least attached to the family’s strife but also the last to abandon Violet at the dark finale.

The play is originally by Tracy Letts. It premiered in 2007, having 648 performances and 18 previews before the Broadway production ended in 2009. The 2013 film adaption featured famed actors Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and Ewan McGregor.

Sarah Gamard can be reached at [email protected]