Under My Skin

I’ve been scratching at an itch I didn’t know I had ever since I saw the delicious new production of August: Osage County now on at the Arden Theater.  I’ve been scratching so hard that I had to see it a second time before I could sort out all the ideas it inspired about families and playwriting and acting and Philadelphia.  I can’t remember the last time the theater gave me such a rash!  I hope the compliment registers if I admit that this production made me want to sit in a tubful of oatmeal and just ponder.

I went into the show cold, knowing very little about it aside from a few dim memories of the  Broadway reviews.  It’s a hell of show to see while you’re waiting for your grandmother to die… especially if you come from a family of stubborn women!  And I guess that’s what’s most interesting to me: the cruelty that comes of intimacy.  It’s so much easier to be mean when you understand your mark.

I have a lot more thinking to do about the play and I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of the script so I can start chewing on the stage directions.  There’s nothing I want more than to see how Letts instructs the oldest daughter to wear her dead father’s bathrobe.  It’s so darn elegant: the more desperately she tries to win the dead man’s favor through imitation, the quicker she starts morphing into her treacherous mother.  If I’ve ever wondered how a playwright communicates ideas or relationships without relying on dialogue, then this ratty old bathrobe is the answer.

But, bizarrely, this production affected me most profoundly as a Philadelphian.  Though I’m a native Philadelphian [and therefore endowed with unreasonable civic pride], I tend to see more theater in New York. I’ve continued to catch occasional local shows, but I’d forgotten how much better Philadelphia productions can be.  The strange thing about regional theater is that it takes chances Broadway cannot afford; this is particularly true of casting.  Ten years ago, I saw Wit in both Philadelphia and New York.  The New York production featured TV star Judith Light and led me to admire the play’s fine writing.  The Philadelphia production starred unfamiliar local actors, but it uncovered the play’s rhythm and emotional center.

I did not see the Broadway production of August so I can’t compare it to the Philadelphia production.  (And the Broadway version featured most of the original Steppenwolf cast, underlining the play’s deep roots in distinguished regional theater.)  But the Philadelphia production made me proud of how the local theater scene has developed. We have a stable of fine actors who are committed to the region and who bring the history of past collaborations  to their performances.  I hope that Philadelphia becomes even more of an incubator for coherent companies that nurture playwrights, actors, directors, technicians and all variety of collaboration.  I am thrilled to the core and I thank the Arden for these shivers.


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