Explosive drama of ‘August’ muffled by laughter at Vintage

At its best, Vintage’s incarnation of “August: Osage County” is the perfect example of why local theater should never shy away from a challenging show. It can make the audience erupt in laughter one moment and then squirm in their seats the next as this family, so full of anger and pain, communicates almost exclusively through sharp-as-knife barbs and physical violence

AURORA | Vintage Theatre’s production of “August: Osage County” is the very definition of ambitious local theater.

The Pulitzer-Prize-winning play features 13 characters, numerous storylines running parallel to one another and enough family dysfunction to fill a season of a Maury Povich-hosted television show. It takes a herculean effort from cast and crew to make it all work.

The story centers around the Weston clan’s impromptu reunion after the disappearance of its patriarch Beverly. Their gathering is like several tornadoes of resentment and combative family ties colliding into a perfect storm that leaves nothing standing. Clocking in at three-plus hours, the audience gets the brewing storm, its destructive force and the shell-shocked aftermath.

At its best, Vintage’s incarnation of “August: Osage County” is the perfect example of why local theater should never shy away from a challenging show. It can make the audience erupt in laughter one moment and then squirm in their seats the next as this family, so full of anger and pain, communicates almost exclusively through sharp-as-knife barbs and physical violence.

By the time the show ends, the audience is left to crawl out of the crater that has been created by this family going nuclear.

Deborah Persoff is a force of nature as Violet, the matriarch of the Weston family who is filled with nothing but pills, pain and venom for her brood. Violet’s importance to the show cannot be overstated: if Persoff had failed in the challenge, the entire show would have been doomed. But Persoff is more than game for the test — she owns it, bringing one of modern theater’s most vicious and heartbreaking characters to life on the Vintage’s stage.

Haley Johnson is pitch-perfect as Violet’s eldest daughter Barbara, a mother struggling with her own family’s disintegration while still carrying the weight of growing up in household’s caustic environment. Johnson holds back on the emotion in the first act, leaving enough on the table for her to truly show the downward spiral Barbara is doomed to take in the second and third acts.

But for all this production has going for it, there are times when it all comes off as disconnected and incongruous. The humor and pain throughout often require a subtle approach to make it seem real and allow the audience a chance to get immersed in the chaos. The exaggerated search for humor in “August” makes for some laugh-out-loud moments, but it comes at the cost of the play’s emotional punch.

But even when it misses the mark, this play is worth the hourslong commitment. There is some fine acting to be seen, especially from John Ashton (Charlie Aiken), Brandon Palmer (Little Charles Aiken), Marc Stith (Bill Fordham) and Kaitlin Weinstein (Jean Fordham). And director Bernie Cardell keeps a firm handle on the chaos of the play, particularly during the climactic dinner scene as the second act closes — that one scene alone is worth the price of admission.

Despite an imperfect execution, Vintage Theater should be applauded for tackling a difficult show that would make even larger theaters second-guess themselves. This play is one every theatergoer should experience at least once live, and Vintage — despite some hiccups — is up to the challenge.