Feasting on Family in Osage County

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BY BRUCE APAR
When Bruce The Blog Watches… People Act!

Axial Theatre Presents
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY
by Tracy Letts
With Mickey Pantano*, D. Scott Faubel, Elizabeth D’Ottavio, Michel E. Boyle, Jr., Julie Griffin, Jeffrey Schlotman, Levi Joseph Green, Maria Oppedisano, Siobhan McKinley, Anthony Barresi, Jr., Dan Forman, Stella DeBeech, Alexandra Theodoroupoulos  (*Appears with permission of Actors’ Equity Association)
Directed by Catherine Banks

Lighting Design, Brian Pacelli
Sound Design, Jim Simonson
Production Stage Manager, Mary Cate Mangum
Stage Manager, Sabrina Fuchs 

Stephen Palgon, Producer
Original Music, Jim Simonson

Through May 19, 2019
Axial Theater at St. John’s Episcopal Church
8 Sunnyside Avenue
Pleasantville, New York 10570

TICKETS
$27.50 General; $22.50 Students + Seniors
Order Online
 Here
Order by Phone: 800-838-3006
Information: Axial Theatre

ALL PHOTOS BY LESLYE SMITH

Consider these tasty ingredients for a delectable, prize-winning stage play, part tragedy, part comedy, all uproarious: One mother, medicated. One father, missing. Three sisters, distraught. Sprinkle in a motley mix of in-laws and outcasts. For added measure, it’s August, and the lady of the century-old house, wherein they all noisily bump into — and bellow at — each other, has no use for air-conditioning (or for heiresses).

Mickey, Julie, Liz, Michael

As husband Bill (Michael E. Boyle, Jr.) looks on, Barbara (Elizabeth D’Ottavio) lays down the law with her mother Violet (Mickey Pantano), to the shock of Violet’s sister Mattie Fay (Julie Griffin).

Meet the Westons of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, 60 miles northwest of Tulsa, county of Osage. They’re on spectacular display through May 19, in a rousing production of Tracy Letts’s multi-award-winning stage play August: Osage County, at Axial Theatre in Pleasantville.

Stir ‘em up and watch the blood boil over. Blaming and shaming, mocking and shocking one other. A lifespan of open wounds festering; feasting on each other’s weaknesses. Arguing about the rules of arguing. Sure, every now and again, there’s a stray compliment that manages to slip out, but it’s usually a mere superficiality, skimming the thin ice that covers deep-seated resentments.

It’s a fun-house mirror of Americana arcana, reminding us that the reason blood is thicker than water is because it’s larded with toxic sentiment, born of relationships that were thrust upon us by birth or invited in by marriage. More than one of those relationships here gets pretty funky before the curtain falls, by which point the household has fallen apart.

Jeff, Julie, Liz, Mickey 2

Charlie Aiken (Jeffrey Schlotman) and Violet’s sister Mattie Fae Aiken (Julie Griffin) have words with each other in front of Violet Weston (Mickey Pantano) and her daughter Barbara Fordham (Elizabeth D’Ottavio).

CUCKOO’S NEST OF VIPERS AND VICTIMS
Not all families can claim the abundance of volatile drama that distinguishes the Westons. Thank goodness a writer as skilled as Tracy Letts gave birth to this cuckoo’s nest of vipers and victims. It makes for one heck of a roller-coaster ride. Not surprisingly, he has been amply rewarded for his efforts with every coveted theater prize handed to him for this exquisitely crafted Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play.

His sharp-toothed dialogue is swift and savage, most notably as voiced by mouthy matriarch Violet Weston, brought to vivid life on the Axial stage, with a riveting performance by the charismatic Mickey Pantano (of Manhattan). She pulls off the neat theatrical trick of making Violet’s behavior so vile it’s sublime.

As the play hurtles forward, the decidedly non-shrinking Violet meets her white-hot match in eldest daughter Barbara, portrayed potently by Elizabeth D’Ottavio (Old Greenwich). She effectively manages the tension within herself that pits resolve against exasperation, a dueling duality recognizable to many an adult child-turned-caregiver. Vi and Barbara become the fast-pumping heart of the piece, though their fraught and fragile relationship feels more like congestive heart failure.

Where in all this fits Violet’s husband, Mr. Weston? That would be Beverly, a lapsed poet of some renown. He lives in the bottle, as Mrs. Weston, coping with mouth cancer, lives in the pillbox.

Anthony and Stella

Karen Weston’s fiance Steve Heidebrecht (Anthony Barresi, Jr.) takes a special interest in Barbara and Bill Weston’s daughter Jean (Stella DeBeech).

BEVERLY’S DISAPPEARING ACT
The first time we see Beverly is the last time we see him—in the opening scene. Following an elegiac monologue, spiked with martini-dry humor and masterfully delivered with economy and authenticity by D. Scott Faubel (White Plains), Beverly disappears with dispatch. The rest of the play posits the Westons’ extended family in search of Beverly, but that’s the script’s MacGuffin, a favorite term of famed filmmaker Alfred Hitchock’s. It connotes a plot device that has little to do with the plot’s subtext.

Tracy Letts’s real preoccupation is, in part, with the failings of human connection and communication. His fictional people, like a great many of us real-life folks, talk and talk, but don’t hear each other very well. They talk at or past one another. They are busy licking their wounds, waiting anxiously for the next chance to defend and retaliate, like domestic war games.

A perhaps more obvious theme here is the ties that bind parents to children and vice versa. Mr. Letts pokes around the idea of how parents and children stay tenuously   connected while not wanting to be imprisoned by past interdependence.

For both generations, it’s a losing battle, in more ways than one. In another time, it was common for children to stick around wherever it was they grew up, staying near to parents. As advances in transportation made America easier to traverse, the offspring more frequently flew further from the nest, creating both physical and emotional distance from parents.

Alexandra and Scott

The first time we see Beverly Weston (D. Scott Faubel), in the opening scene, is the last time we see him, as he waxes philosophic about his life to newly-hired housekeeper Johnna Monevata (Alexandra Theodoropoulos).

THE UMBILICAL CONNECTION
Mr. Letts employs a starkly literal way to underscore that evolution of filial estrangement: He has the Westons’ housekeeper, a native American young woman named Johnna Monevata (elegantly played by Alexandra Theodoropoulos, Cold Spring), explain that Cheyenne tradition is for the umbilical cord of newborns to be dried and sewn into a pouch worn for the rest of their life.

“If we lose it,” says Johnna, “our souls belong nowhere and after we die our souls will walk the Earth looking for where we belong.” Inherent in the American tragedy, so suggests Mr. Letts, is that we have forsaken such wisdom and spiritual connectedness that is an article of faith in the soulful native American culture that we not only supplanted but wantonly demonized.

Along with that, the author suggests, we have squandered the sacred human currency of mutual respect, decency and kindness.

Of course, excellent material is essential to a rewarding theater experience, but the players must be up to the task. So must the person piloting the production, the director.  

Levi and Jeff

Violet’s brother-in-law Charlie Aiken (Jeffrey Schlotman) assures son Little Charles (Levi Joseph Green) that everything will work out.

JUST ‘PLAINS’ FOLKS
As the play’s only still-together married couple, Mattie Fae Aiken, Violet’s sister, and Charlie, seasoned actors Julie Griffin (Ossining) and Jeffrey Schlotman (Pleasantville) turn in rip-roaring portrayals of unabashed “Plains” folks.

Levi Joseph Green (Bronx), as their son “Little Charles,” and Maria Oppedisano (Harrison), as middle sister Ivy Weston, who want to be married, prove achingly vulnerable as lost souls who happily find a soulmate in each other.

Liz and Siobhan 2

Youngest Weston daughter Karen (Siobhan McKinley, r) dishes on older sister Barbara (Elizabeth D’Ottavio) as they prepare for mother Violet to feast on the family.

As youngest sister Karen Weston, who lives in sunny Florida, Siobhan McKinley (Ridgefield) carries off most convincingly an innocence and lightness that offsets the decidedly darker deliberations of her unsunny siblings.

Michael E. Boyle, Jr. (Ossining), as Barbara’s soon-to-be-ex Bill, and Anthony Barresi, Jr. (Peekskill), as Steve Heidebrecht, the naughty fiancée of Karen Weston, conjure a fellowship of free spirits whose devil-may-care posturing befits their helplessly horny impulses.

As helpful Sheriff Deon Gilbeau, who had courted Barbara in high school, Dan Forman (Yorktown Heights) projects a palpable discomfort in having to be the bearer of sad tidings. The sheriff’s humble reticence helps lower the temperature, albeit briefly, of an otherwise over-heated pressure cooker.

Liz and Stella

Barbara Fordham (Elizabeth D’Ottavio) has a heart-to-heart with 14-year-old daughter Jean (Stella DeBeech).

AUSPICIOUS STAGE DEBUT
Special mention goes to Stella DeBeech, who plays Jean Fordham, precocious daughter of Barbara and Bill. Stella, a 15-year-old freshman at Ridgefield High School, studies with Cat Banks in Howard Meyer’s Acting Program, and is making her stage debut in the play. I hope she keeps at it, because she’s a natural who does impressive work here.

The three-act play’s three hours whiz by. Directed with a firm grasp and theatrical smarts by Axial co-artistic director and stage veteran Catherine “Cat” Banks (Ossining), the pace stays reliably on track, moving mostly at breakneck speed.

Two set pieces indicative of her flair are the rambunctious dinner scene, where the audience intimately overlooks the outsize dining room table of nine people eating a real repast, as Violet ravenously feasts on her prey; and a scene where most of the actors are on stage at once, carrying on three or four simultaneous conversations in a cacophony of crosstalk. For a director, it’s the proverbial challenge of herding cats, and, true to her name, Cat makes it all work purr-fectly.

So, save the date and location, May: Westchester County, for August: Osage County

[NOTE: The author of this article is a member of the board of Axial Theatre, who also regularly reviews local theater in his Bruce The Blog Beyond Broadway column.]

Dan, Mickey, Michael

Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Dan Forman, l) and son-in-law Bill Fordham (Michael Boyle, Jr.) are bemused by one of Violet Weston’s incoherent, drug-induced retreats from reality.


Bruce “The Blog” Apar promotes local businesses, organizations, events and people through public relations agency APAR PR. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals. Follow him as Bruce The Blog on social media. Reach him at bruce@aparpr.co or 914.275.6887.

In ‘Senescence,’ Small-town Prophet Takes on Big-time Profits

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Online + Print Syndicated Reviews
Covering the Region’s Top Theater Companies — from Ridgefield to Armonk to Pleasantville to Stony Point to New Paltz

BY BRUCE APAR
When Bruce The Blog Watches… People Act!

Axial Theatre Presents
SENESCENCE
by Howard Meyer
With Eric Cotti, Michael Kingsbaker, Ryan Mallon, Claire McClain
Directed by James Fauvell
Axial Artistic Directors Catherine Banks, Linda Giuliano
Axial Managing Director Betsy Klampert
Weekends through November 18, 2018
St. John’s Episcopal Church
8 Sunnyside Avenue
Pleasantville, New York 10570

Order Tickets Online
$27.50 General; $22.50 Students + Seniors

Playwright Howard Meyer packs a lot of meaty food for thought into his new play, Senescence, which is having its premiere performances at Axial Theatre in Pleasantville, where it runs through Sunday, Nov. 18. It is the 20th anniversary production of Axial Theatre, which was founded by Mr. Meyer, who also operates Howard Meyer’s Acting Program under the same roof.

As always in a Meyer piece, there’s a lot going on in his curious and socially-conscious mind, and it’s all there on stage: In the fraught scenario that has universal import, in the uniformly excellent acting ensemble that brings it to vivid life, and in the muscular vernacular of Mr. Meyer’s authentic and taut dialogue. This isn’t a musical, but in his expressiveness, he’s got rhythm.

(From right) Ryan Mallon as Rudy and Eric Cotti as Geo meet the strange stranger who calls himself just J. All photos by Leslye Smith

The play’s title is a word that means aging. In the context of the play, the word can be inferred two ways: aging, as in maturing into a responsible adult; and aging, as in growing old before your time. As one character points out, there’s a difference in the quality of life between getting older naturally and “being kept alive longer” through modern medicine.

Senescence is a wake-up call for our times: It’s in part a reminder of how we casually and negligently allow healthy bodies to be inflicted by toxic byproducts of industry, and how we intoxicate ourselves with mood-altering medication, legal and otherwise, to avoid facing hard questions about the future. Put another way, as we make toxins that can kill us, we unmake ourselves.

The setting is Linden, N.J., home of (fictional) Petra Oil Refinery, the second largest on the east coast. That’s the plant where a trio of millennials — lifelong friends — work and share a rented house: Rudy Malone (portrayed by Ryan Mallon), his girlfriend Natalia Janowski (Claire McClain), and their friend, ex-con Giuseppe “Geo” Gomez (Eric Cotti).

The author’s character development is clear and specific in each case. We know precisely at which point each person is in his or her life and see the recognizable behaviors they represent in the rest of us.

Geo (Eric Cotti) likes listening to Nirvana on his exercise cycle.

Rudy’s and Natalia’s fathers worked their whole lives at Petra. Both died of cancer believed to have been caused by carcinogens released in the refinery process. When not working their shifts, they get high on weed, listen to Nirvana, and approximate exercise by pedaling away on an exercycle tucked in a corner of their cozy living space.

Mr. Meyer makes credible use of the knowing street talk that’s endemic to the demography of these characters. The venturesome playwright even tries his hand at a few rap lyrics, riffing off of Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” and, to borrow street talk, the result is “dope.” He interlaces the exchanges with just enough well-researched dollops of scientific fact to make his points without turning it into an academic exercise.

The character of J is a spiritual descendant of biblical personage Jeremiah, who is a prophet of judgment and hope.

Geo, who is fiercely proud of his Italian-Spanish heritage, is trying to rehabilitate himself after serving time for shooting someone. He wants to convince his dad that he’s righted himself enough to help run the father’s gas station. Natalia is looking to attend graduate school. As for Rudy, he ain’t goin’ nowhere, literally and figuratively. He’s a plant supervisor who repeatedly turns down promotions he’s offered by management.

It’s as if there are two basic ways to navigate this life: either move ahead purposefully in a more-or-less straight line toward specific goals of fulfillment, learning to grow and prosper and learn from adventures; or chase yourself while running in circles, avoiding adventures and, more likely, inviting disappointment, if not the outright depression that attends a static existence.

Rudy Malone (Ryan Mallon) is comforted by girlfriend Natalia Janowski (Claire McClain).

Into the humdrum lives of the threesome steps an agent of change who calls himself simply J (Michael Kingsbaker*). They don’t know at first what to make of the soft-spoken, cryptic stranger. He is equal parts mysterious (in his apparent metaphysical gifts), transparent (in his activist’s proselytizing of environmental and human sanctity), and deeply flawed (in his checkered past).

Does “J” stand for Jesus? Or for Jeremiah, a biblical personage who is invoked here, along with his quotation: “Each pursues their own course, like a horse charging into battle.” J, Jeremiah, and the noun that is Jeremiah’s namesake – jeremiad – all bring to bear urgent warnings against evil and destruction. It could be in the form of a hurricane with the force of a Sandy – which figures prominently in Senescence — or in unsafe refineries like Petra Oil, which gets Sandy in its eyes.

Michael Kingsbaker admirably essays J as humanistic, humble, and hell-bent on following his mystical (and biblical) muse. Claire McClain, Ryan Mallon and Eric Cotti are fine actors all who make us feel as if they’ve known each other their whole lives.

The production is briskly and impactfully directed by James Fauvell, who gets great technical enhancements from his lighting designer Shane Cassidy and sound designer Jim Simonson, both of whom orchestrate a perfect storm of special effects. The efficient, “before-and-after” scenic design is by Eric Zoback.

With Rudy looking on in wonder, J (Michael Kingsbaker) appears to exert a mystical power over Natalia (Claire McClain) after she is injured when Hurricane Sandy damages the house.

Make no mistake. Senescence is an indictment against the moral turpitude of the oil industry, illustrating through artful playwriting and stage performances how its corporate chiefs take advantage of human nature and mother nature.

In the end, Mr. Meyer presents the audience – and society at large – with a binary choice: Do we, as Rudy declares at one point, “Keep our mouth shut,” and be grateful for steady jobs and income; or do we stop misplacing our trust in the wrong powers that be, and start asking hard questions that may save us all from a dark, precipitous future.

Senescence playwright Howard Meyer is founder of Axial Theatre, commemorating its 20th anniversary with the premiere production of his play.


ADDITIONAL TECHNICAL CREDITS
Scenic Design, Eric Zoback
Lighting Design, Shane Cassidy 

Sound Design, Jim Simonson
Stage Manager, Mary Cate Mangum*
Assistant Stage Manager, Virginia Reynolds
Technical Director, Chris Arrigo

*Member of Actors Equity Association


Bruce “The Blog” Apar promotes local businesses, organizations, events and people through public relations agency APAR PR. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals. Follow him as Bruce The Blog on social media. Reach him at bruce@aparpr.co or 914.275.6887.