"August: Osage County," Tracy Lett's 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, hits you upside the head with the force of the cast-iron frying pan wielded by one of the cast members.
Witty, comedic and unflinchingly raw dialogue combined with stellar performances by an ensemble cast make this Lehigh Valley debut a must-see, 7 p.m. March 7 - 9 and 2 p.m. March 10, Civic Theatre of Allentown, 527 N 19th St., Allentown.
The creative staff involved in the production has achieved near-perfection in staging the contemporary tragic-comedy and intense character study, propelled by a line from "T.S. Elliot's poem, "The Hollow Men": "This is the way the world ends."
The good bones are already there in Lett's brilliant script, but only with solid casting and direction by Williams Sanders can the true vision of the play be fulfilled. Civic Theatre proves more than up to the task and deserves high praise.
The plot centers on the hugely dysfunctional Weston family and their equally-flawed relatives who gather at the sprawling three-story wood-frame home of Beverly (Bill Joachim) and Violet (Becky Engborg) Weston after family patriarch Beverly goes missing one hot summer's day.
Joachim as Beverly opens the play in his book-littered office, interviewing a young Native-American, Johnna Monevata (Meggan Gomez), for a hired position as family care-taker. His appearance in the first scene is brief, but his presence is felt throughout the three-hour, two-intermission and three-act show.
Gomez as Monevata is the often silent observer of the family's meltdown. She's the only person who exhibits reason amidst the chaos of the Weston clan.
Anchoring the wild, wild Westons, ribald dialogue and plot twists is Engborg, who says as much with her body language as her dialogue.
Two daughters and their spouses, one daughter and her boyfriend and a fourth daughter illuminate the family drama.
Daughter Barbara Fordham (Jan Labellarte) and her husband Bill (Tom Onushco) are separating. Their daughter, Jean (Meredith Lipson), is a 14-year-old poster child for teen-age angst.
Labellarte is forceful, conveying a caring understanding of the core family conflicts. Onushco effectively creates an ineffectual man. Lipson is amazing in her control of her role.
Mattie Fae Aiken (Sue Sneeringer) and Charlie Aiken (Pat Kelly) bring their battles to the reunion. Sneeringer is deceptively naturalistic. Kelly has one of the play's funniest scenes, saying grace at the post-wake family dinner.
Merce Tonne (Ivy Weston) arcs from quiet to explosive. Gretchen Furst (Karen Weston) is humorously flighty as she revels in her newfound love, Steve Heidebrecht (very clever Kirk Lawrence).
Troy Brokenshire (Little Charles) is charming as the put-upon cousin. John Kuchar (Sheriff Deon Gilbeau) adds a grace note of hope.
The play is set inside and just outside the front door of the Weston home located someplace on the Oklahoma plains. The house is dark, dusty and cluttered. Shades rarely are opened, giving the inhabitants no sense of light and dark. It is timeless and stuck in place.
The set designed by Jason Sherwood becomes an additional character in the production. The attention to detail is astounding.
Lighting, designed by Will Morris, is subtle and not the often harsh theatrical lighting.
During the dinner scene, real wine bottles are uncorked, poured and then sipped; actual food is served and eaten rather than mimed and implied. These nuances will be appreciated by those who like realism in theater.
Be forewarned: this is not a play to bring children to. The language and themes are very much adult.
That said, adults will be amused, shocked and thoroughly entertained during their visit with the Westons in "August: Osage County."