The best thing about a great play is its ability to shift shapes with each new production and every replacement cast member. Witness Estelle Parsons’ arrival into August: Osage County. (Read EW.com’s 2007 review of the show, with its original Broadway cast, here.) She has the plum part of pill-popping matron Violet Weston, the darkest and most dysfunctional member of an extremely dark and dysfunctional household. Parsons also has the unenviable task of replacing Best Actress Tony winner Deanna Dunagan, who played her last performance, incidentally, just hours before she was awarded that little silver statuette.
Dunagan’s wiry, hard-edged Violet was an outsize presence — even when she left the stage, her spirit permeated the three-story country house. There’s no way Parsons can re-create that, and why should she? Why would we want her to? Letts’ drama can accommodate any number of interpretations on the inscrutable Violet. Parsons is a good deal older than the playwright indicates in his script (Letts says Violet is 65), though she certainly doesn’t look it. Still, her portrayal is more immature (reminiscent of the ”second childishness and mere oblivion” Shakespeare speaks of in his Seven Ages of Man speech). And there’s something wonderfully trailer-trashy about her. (If Dunagan was Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, Parsons is Thelma Harper in Mama’s Family.) She can certainly be claws-out mean — like when she’s telling her husband (Michael McGuire) to ”f— a f—ing sow’s ass” — but overall, it’s a rather low-key performance. (Of course, ”low-key” is only in comparison to Dunagan, for there’s very little that’s low-key about Letts’ firecracker dialogue and twist-packed plot.)
Thus, the other family members come into sharper focus. The on-the-rocks marriage of eldest daughter Barbara (Amy Morton) and husband Bill (Frank Wood) suddenly seems weightier than ever. Wood (who began on June 17, along with Parsons) and Morton spark and bicker like they’ve been together for years rather than weeks. And Morton has never been sharper, funnier, or more deliciously cynical. As for the other new additions, Jim True-Frost (The Wire) makes a wonderfully sweet Little Charles; Molly Regan, as Violet’s fussbudget sis Mattie Fae, proves a good match for Parsons (their different looks give an Act 3 revelation the requisite believability); and Robert Foxworth endows Uncle Charlie (Mattie Fae’s would-be henpecked husband) with a lovely quiet strength. If you’re seeing August for the first time, you won’t be able to tell who came in last month and who’s been there since the June 2007 production at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. If it’s your second, third, or fourth visit, you’ll be surprised and pleased at how easily the entire cast has blended into one beautiful screwed-up family. (Tickets: Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200) A