In her Broadway roles in recent years, Phylicia Rashad has cornered the market in formidable matriarchs: the strong-willed traditionalist suspicious of change in “A Raisin in the Sun”; the 287-year-old spiritual guide in “Gem of the Ocean”; the scheming ice queen in “Cymbeline”; the self-deluding Big Mama, in deep denial about her marriage and impending widowhood, in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” But no role has taken her further from warm, sensible, no-nonsense Clair Huxtable than Violet Weston, the pill-popping Oklahoma terminator who serves as the motor for a family’s disintegration in Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize and Tony winner “August: Osage County.”
More than midway through its second year in New York, this epic-scaled, acid-tongued comedy-drama has been showing signs of fatigue at the box office, for which producers hope the nontraditional casting of Rashad will provide some relief. Oprah Winfrey’s glowing Twitter assessment after catching a recent performance has already helped pique curiosity. But regardless of how much mileage is still left in the hit Broadway transfer of this Steppenwolf Theater Company production, the show remains crackling entertainment, an edge-of-the-seat roller-coaster ride through the ultimate in family dysfunction that has lost none of its humor or horror.
Some of the substitute casting has brought subtle changes to the production’s tone, most notably that of Rashad and Elizabeth Ashley, who is loud-mouthed blowsiness personified as Violet’s tactless sister, Mattie Fae.
Fanning and fussing and gesticulating whenever she’s onstage, Ashley brings a somewhat larger characterization than that of Rondi Reed, who originated the role. But even as she risks pushing it over the top into comic caricature with her one-woman hive of dithering activity, Ashley reinforces one of the play’s fundamental strengths: the bracing balance of unspeakable meanness, wicked laughs and unsentimental pathos.
In a more measured way, Rashad also ups the theatrical spin on her role, previously played by Deanna Dunagan and Estelle Parsons. For a start, she appears to have tripled Violet’s pharmaceutical dosage, so she’s considerably more stoned, vacant-eyed and slack-jawed as she weaves around designer Todd Rosenthal’s American Gothic doll’s house between perplexing rants and lacerating attacks. But she also reveals more of the wounded little girl beneath the surface of this damaged, damaging woman. At times, Rashad makes Violet aware of that contradiction, calculating the impact of her behavior with a knowing tilt of her head. At others, it emerges more softly, suggesting unsuspected vulnerabilities in the character.
Casting an African-American actress as the mother of an all-white family to some degree inevitably requires greater suspension of disbelief. It adds a stagier feel to a production distinguished for the naturalistic work of the Steppenwolf ensemble that was an integral part of the play’s development.
The contrast in technique is especially evident when the three original actors playing Violet’s daughters — Amy Morton, Sally Murphy and Mariann Mayberry — share a terrific scene in which the expectation of a sisterly bond clashes against the admission that much of that assumed connectedness is forced. But the surprise for anyone returning to “August” with memories of its original incarnation is how smoothly the cogs still fit together, how incisive the characterizations remain regardless of variations in acting style and how stealthily the play builds from vitriolic comedy to powerful drama via some lofty yet still sobering reflections on the decline of America.
Director Anna D. Shapiro smoothly integrates new additions with long-haul cast members.
Among those bringing fresh notes to their characters, John Cullum injects touching resignation into the unapologetic sourness of Beverly Weston, Violet’s faded poet husband, seen only in the play’s prologue under a cloud of melancholy. Guy Boyd’s easygoing, earthy quality is nicely matched with Ashley’s growling brassiness as Mattie Fae’s good-humored husband, making his anger all the more stirring when he turns confrontational. And Frank Wood’s soft-spoken calm and intelligence give Bill’s prickly interaction with wife Barbara (Morton) and daughter Jean (Anne Berkowitz) a compelling edge.
The production’s standout, however, remains Morton. Barbara’s brittle observations and rankling bitterness pin her unmistakably as her mother’s daughter. But it’s her own appalled realization of just how deep those shared traits run that gives the funny, fierce, wrenching performance its charge. Morton’s offhand command as Barbara shoots down any attempt at consoling rhetoric with a withering no-bullshit dismissal is emblematic of a brilliant play that takes the cliches of the warring family and makes them invigoratingly new.