photo: Seth Langner


Players by the Sea in Jacksonville Beach opened “August: Osage County,” on June 5, 2015, for a three-weekend run through June 20. The play, which had over 600 Broadway performances, has received wide critical acclaim and garnered multiple Tony Awards, while playwright Tracy Letts was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

Tracy Letts is no stranger to North Florida audiences. Players has staged two of his plays, “Bug” and “Superior Donuts,” in past seasons; both were excellent and well-received by audiences.  Like many playwrights, Letts uses personal experiences for his work. If you read the Dramaturg notes in the program, you will learn, that yes, Mr. Letts had a background that included familiarity with dysfunctional family dynamics. His play centers on two fictitious characters based on the lives of his maternal grandparents: his grandfather an alcoholic who committed suicide and his grandmother a drug addict noted for her cruelty.

The play is set is the small town of Pawhuska, Oklahoma during a hot, hot summer. The set is the downstairs of a rambling three-story house, remarkably well-designed by Tom Fallon. This is the home of Beverly Weston and his wife Violet.

The play opens with Beverly sitting in his den to the far left of the stage, drinking whiskey. As excellently portrayed by Dave Gowan, he is in the process of hiring Johnna (Sarah D’Anna), a local Native American, as the family cook, maid, and caregiver for his drug and booze dependent wife Violet, who is fighting mouth cancer. He forewarns Johnna by saying “I drink; my wife takes pills because that is the bargain we struck.” In the next scene, we learn that Bev suddenly disappeared and a few days later was found drowned in a lake in an evident suicide.

The play accelerates rapidly as family members gather. Ivy Weston (Olivia Gowan), the Watson’s unmarried daughter, who has assumed the role of caretaker, is over forty and lives at home. Soon, sister Barbara Fordham (Sinda Nichols) and her ex-husband Bill (Bill White) arrive, along with Jean (Sophia Rizzuto), their fourteen-year-old daughter. The somewhat flighty Karen (Hillary Hickam) is the third sister who has brought along her current boyfriend, Steve (Joseph Stearman), handsome, smooth talking, three-times married, and dangerously sleazy.

The three talented ladies playing the sisters actually look very much like sisters, each with long blondish hair and trim and slender figures.

Enter Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae Aiken, known to the sisters as Aunt Aiken. This most flamboyant relative, who provides much of the humor in this play, is played with gusto and flash by Holly Gutshall. Veteran actor Mark Wright is her husband Charles, who is probably the most normal person in the show, certainly the smartest, and quite humorous as well. Their son, Little Charles Aiken, is portrayed by polished comedic actor Matt Tompkins. The son is thirty-seven, lives at home, doesn’t drive, and is dismissively referred to as “Little” for his immature attributes.

The final member of this high wattage cast is David Girard, who makes two brief appearances as the local sheriff. His first visit is in the line of duty to report the discovery of the deceased Bev’s body; his second an attempt to renew a high school friendship with one of the daughters.

Well we have, in some small way, introduced almost all the members of this experienced and versatile cast who portray characters with issues ranging over the vicissitudes of birth, death, insanity, drugs, alcohol, adultery, and love affairs. It seems everyone has secrets that are revealed as the fast-paced play moves along.

We now come to the central character: Violet, as played by Robyn Neal, is the corroded soul of the show, as she ambles about the house popping assorted multi-colored pain pills, accompanied by slugs of booze. Her language when addressing others is spontaneous and raw; we almost feel sympathy for the devil she will face when she dies. Ms. Neal really comes into her own during her portrayal of Violet after the funeral of her deceased husband, as fireworks fly.

The play was directed by Dr. Lee Beger, who recently retired from Douglas Anderson School of the Arts after starting and then guiding the school’s theater program for the past thirty years. The Dual Critics have been privileged to see many of the plays she directed at DASOTA, and we have been impressed with her ability to extract unconstrained performances. With “Osage,” Dr. Beger keeps the pace just a hair below frenzied thus allowing the snarling humor of Mr. Letts to register fully.

The Creative Team included : Director, Dr. Lee Beger; Stage Managers, Jordan Smith and MacKenzy Kline; Assistant Stage Managers, Manasseh Lewis and Jordan Gregson; Technical Director, Jim Wiggins; Scenic Designer, Tom Fallon; Lighting Designers, Joe Schwartz and Bradley Akers; Costumes and Properties, Marc Parrish.

Osage County” was made into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, both of whom received Academy Award nominations. The male half of the Dual Critics saw the movie and found it very dark. It did not have the humor that Director Beger emphasized.

The play runs under three hours with the intermission, but it moves quickly and is a moral roller-coaster ride filled with intense family conflicts and heady language. Visit or call 249-0289 for reservations






About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.