Jan. 16 2013 12:00 AM

Dysfunction delights in epic drama

It’s one of the basic rules of storytelling: your own family’s dysfunction makes you neurotic; someone else’s dysfunction is good drama (or comedy, as the case may be). The clan in “August: Osage County” is the epitome of gothic drama, complete with drugs, death and pedophilia. At its best, Riverwalk Theatre’s production of Tracy Letts’ epic three-act play achieves a magical transcendence when the full cast of 15 banters organically around the dinner table, sharing sharp glances and sharper insults. But like many family dinners, sometimes the night goes on too long. 

Connie Curran-Oesterle plays Violet Weston, the vicious, pill-popping matriarch with custom-made verbal blades for every member of her family. After her husband Beverly (Michael Hays) disappears, her immediate and extended relations congregate at her home to provide support. But Violet feeds on attention and only reciprocates with poison. 

Truly, few Lansing actresses could embody Violet with the unctuous charisma that Curran-Oesterle provides. For all of Violet’s blood-soaked dialogue and seemingly unrestrained behavior, it requires a great deal of restraint to keep her from devolving into caricature. Not only is Curran-Oesterle’s performance skillfully controlled, she even infuses Violet’s drug-induced ramblings with a jazz-like rhythm that is hypnotically entertaining.

And Curran-Oesterle is not alone. Janet Lockwood shares a conspiratorial chemistry with Curran-Oesterle as Violet’s sister Mattie, and Madeline Nash (as Violet’s oldest daughter) and Doak Bloss (as her son-in-law) deliver stellar performances, particularly when all three play off each other. As Violet’s brother-in-law Charlie Aiken, Michael Schacherbauer chills the room in the third act calling out his wife and Violet on their gleeful meanness. Additionally, Erin Hoffman and Kat Cooper — among many others — fill in a wide range of the family dynamics, each with juicy characters all their own. 

Tim Fox’s exceptional set design provides space, levels and authentic ambience not seen often enough in Riverwalk productions. From a moveable front porch to a central carpeted staircase connecting the two bedrooms to the dining room like a twisted spine, Fox’s delicate details make the set feel like unique character with a mournful face. 

Despite a strong, slow build in the first act and a raucously blistering second act, the third stumbled opening night from waning momentum caused by numerous blackouts and sluggish transitions. As audience attention drifted, so did the show’s energy. 

It’s a problem, within director Emily English Clark’s power to fix — especially given the overall quality of this monstrous production. For audiences, it’s a question of tone; “August: Osage County” may not be a happy play, but it is funny and may make you feel better about your own family issues. 

“August: Osage County”
Riverwalk Theatre
Through Jan. 20
7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday,
2 p.m. Sunday
$14 general/$12 students, seniors, military ($4 off Thursdays)
228 Museum Drive
(517) 482-5700