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The Playhouse raised the bar with 'August: Osage County'

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Theater season typically begins at most local houses with a big, crowd-pleasing musical.

But there are a few exceptions this year – most notably at the Hopewell Theatre and the Youngstown Playhouse. Powerful, even wrenching, dramas that focus on a single family are ushering in the new season at both theaters.

The Hopewell will open Friday with “Fences.” The drama, written by the late, great Pittsburgh playwright August Wilson, was made into a film last year starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. It earned an Oscar nod for Best Picture, and probably should have won it.

The Playhouse started its year with the equally powerful “August: Osage County.” Neither play had been produced in the Valley until now.

The Hopewell, by the way, is the new name for the Victorian Players Theater. The Vic changed its name last week to formalize the fact that it has long since moved away from its founders’ goal of bringing Victorian-era literature to the stage.

Tom Copeland, a board member and director at the Hopewell, shed some light on how they settled on the new name.

“The Hopewell Indians lived hereabouts, and there seem to be two Hopewell iron furnaces named after them – one in Pennsylvania and one in [Struthers],” said Copeland in an email. “It seemed fitting to choose a name with broad geographic significance.” Copeland noted that the official name of the theater building is The Little Theater Off Spring Commons, and – although that name is never used – it also is location-centric.

Copeland had other reasons for liking the new name. “I personally like the connotations of both syllables of the word,” he said. “They make me think of a wishing well, which corresponds to my thoughts on opening nights.”

The Playhouse’s production of “August: Osage County” closed Sunday, but it will long be remembered as one of the finest pieces of theater of this era. Directed by Matthew Mazuroski, the play was utterly gripping, brilliantly acted, and featured a beautiful set that was almost like another character. It easily topped three hours in run time but was impossible to turn away from.

“August” voyeuristically looks in on a family that has gathered at its matriarch’s home after the patriarch goes missing.

The ensemble cast hummed with precision. And at its center was Violet, the pill-popping matriarch – loopy and vicious by turns – played by local theater great Molly Galano.

Each member of this family has a backstory and a degree of personality damage, and playwright Tracy Letts illuminates these ugly details.

But none of them come close to Violet. She had long since put a hard shell over her painful emotional scars with drugs and rage.

“She is a broken soul,” mused Galano. “But, for all that, had such a survivor’s instinct, albeit one that was terribly destructive – for herself and anyone within her orbit.”

Galano called it the most challenging role she has ever played, and called upon all of her experience in “finding” the soul of this complex character.

Unlike the Broadway production (or the movie adaptation starring Meryl Streep), Galano’s Violet garners sympathy from the audience. It’s a striking difference, and I wasn’t sure about it at first, but it turned out to be the best interpretation. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, you have to see a glimpse of the humanity that has been hidden away in order to understand the tyrant that took its place.

Galano’s vulnerable portrayal also creates a thread that is fully exposed in the final scene, and makes for a more satisfying (but not easy to take) ending. The actor said she had never seen either the Broadway tour or the movie, and therefore had no preconceptions.

“Vi’s biggest fear was to be alone, and she caused her fear to become a reality,” noted Galano.

“August: Osage County” touches on many themes, not only of family, but on the individual. Among them is the notion that every monster had an innocent beginning.

“Violet the child was always somewhere, just out of reach, trying desperately to find what she needed, and was looking for – and totally unable to allow herself to obtain it, and just be whole,” said Galano. “She wasn’t inspiring, or strong as we like to think of that word, but, I believe, she was real. She was human.”

Galano gave credit to the “peerless” direction of Mazuroski and the entire cast, each of whom hit another level.

Each character is painted with enough detail by the playwright and the actors so that their motives and fears are easily recognizable.

But “August” is a play that puts a special focus on mothers and daughters – and how they can be so tough on each other.

As such, special kudos have to go to the daughters.

As oldest daughter Barbara, Stephanie Cambro had to match her mother in strength – and craziness – even as she devolved into her father.

As the other two daughters (Ivy and Karen), Laura J. Phillips and Rachel Katz were a step removed from that intense heat. Instead, they introduced shocking situations from their own lives, delivering it in ways that never seemed beyond belief.

Selena Phillips (who is Laura’s daughter in real life) played Barbara’s daughter and was perversely delightful as the 15-year-old pot-smoking Lolita who also gave her mother fits.

I’d be interested in seeing how their mother-daughter relationship turned out. Maybe the playwright will revisit “Osage County” in the future and focus on these two.

Guy D’Astolfo covers entertainment for The Vindicator. Follow him on Twitter at @VindyVibe.