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Dirt Dogs' 'August: Osage County' at MATCH is absolutely electric

Jul 15, 2023

Deborah Hope as Violet and Elissa Cuellar as Johnna in Dirt Dogs Theatre's 'August Osage County'

Tolstoy was right: Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

And in Tracy Letts' Pulitzer and Tony-winning play "August: Osage County," at Dirt Dogs Theatre Company through June 10, there is certainly no denying the exquisite train wreck of relationships in the Weston family as they deal with the disappearance of patriarch Beverly Weston, a hard-drinking poet with a penchant for T.S. Eliot and cynicism.

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The Westons and their discontents come to vivid life thanks to a riveting script, stellar cast and excellent direction from Ron Jones. It is a stunning master class in acting, writing and psychology.

Ostensibly, Beverly (John Raley) has achieved the American dream in Oklahoma, elevating himself from living in a car with his struggling parents at a young age to being a member of the professorial class. But pain has a price, no matter what your status. As he explains to Johnna (a convincing and measured Elissa Cuellar), a young Native American woman he hires to take care of his drug-addled wife, Violet: "She takes pills and I drink."

Thus unfolds the drama of this family's shocking and often poignant efforts at achieving some kind of "equilibrium." The play tells us that "dissipation is actually much worse than cataclysm," but the Westons have both covered.

When: Through June 10

Where: Dirt Dogs Theatre Company, Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston, 3400 Main

Details: $30; 713-561-5133 and 713-521-4533;

The story may be set in June of 2007, but it could be right here, right now. That is because Letts understands that intergenerational trauma — and the narcissism and abuse it begets — never has an expiration date. Mark Lewis’ wonderful, ’70s scenic design and Malinda L. Beckham's spot-on costumes and design dramatize the time capsule of the Weston girls’ upbringing, replete with a dry bar, swivel chairs, accessible ashtrays, consoles and chenille bedspreads. It is a mausoleum housing a thousand cigarette and alcohol-laden arguments. Faulkner hovers over the set: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Deborah Hope, as the treacherous Violet Weston, is the star. It is the role of a lifetime, and her superlative performance is electric. Hope conveys a self-pitying woman suffering from "mouth cancer" juxtaposed with the harpy whose same mouth can't filter her constant controlling criticism of her daughters. Violet knows it all, and as any card-carrying narcissist will remind you, no one's pain is like her pain.

Barbara's impending divorce, Ivy's (Melissa Marek) longstanding and unappreciated loyalty, and Karen's (Katrina Ellsworth) shaky sense of self stem from the powerful cocktail of emotional neglect from an alcoholic father mixed with a manipulative stream of maternal criticism that would make anyone's head explode. The cognitive dissonance of parental apathy and control affects them profoundly.

Hope is supported by an outstanding cast and a magnificent performance by Elizabeth Marshall Black as her daughter, Barbara. These are two of the best actresses in Houston, and to have them together in one show is pure magic. The ensemble cast has a palpable chemistry, and Brian Broome and Elizabeth Byrd Shipsey are superb as the Aikens, who harbor their own shocking secrets, feeding the intensity of the drama.

Violet's resentments, violence and coping mechanisms are as timeless as Medea's intractable revenge, Mary Tyrone's morphine-laced self-medicating and any of Tennessee Williams’ vulnerable Southern survivors, from Blanche to Maggie. Letts has not created a pastiche of these memorable characters but a true American original, who should be in the same pantheon as these other American characters. Everyone in this play is a walking defense mechanism. Letts show us how and why, with humor and brutal truth, and it is brilliant.

As in tragedy, so in literature: What goes up must come down. At the end, Violet has been abandoned. She is comforted by Johnna, who represents a different vision of America, before everything became such a warped and Darwinian recipe for self-annihilation.

Johnna has been reading Eliot thanks to Beverly, so with a perfect literary bookend to the play, she sings to Violet, "This is the way the world ends." Violet isn't going out with a bang, but with a whimper. The sharp-tongued pistol who shot at everyone at the funeral dinner has nowhere else to aim.

Doni Wilson is a Houston-based writer.