Fran Hilgenberg's set design, depicting three levels of the family homestead in rural Oklahoma, even reveals what characters not involved in a scene's principal action are doing: reading a magazine in bed, listening to music on the landing.
The longing to flee permeates the story. Ivy is resentful that sisters Barbara and Karen have both moved far away, leaving her with their declining parents; Dad Beverly is an alcoholic, mother Violet has cancer — and "she takes pills," Beverly says. "Sometimes a great many."
The window shades are always kept closed, ostensibly because addled Violet doesn't want to know if it's night or day, but that contributes to the sensation of being caged. And much is made of the stifling sensation of being in the house — Violet won't run the air conditioning.
The relatives reunite unwillingly after Beverly disappears, and one by one their secrets come tumbling out, each one more damaging than the last.
Director Frank Hilgenberg doesn't let the melodramatic nature of the story (forbidden loves, infidelity, teen sexuality) push his actors into soap-opera performances. Instead, to more inviting effect, everyone seems so normal at first glance.
Everyone, that is, except for Violet. As played by Cira Larkin, though, she's less a malicious monster and more a woman in pain — the kind pills won't fix no matter how many you take.
Leslie Penuel has a natural everywoman quality as Barbara that lets her juggle anger at her husband, impatience with her daughter, frustration with her mother and regret over her failing marriage.
As her sisters, Marcie Schwalm (Karen) burbles with self-delusion about her new beau, and Monica Travers (Ivy) shows some delightfully sly smugness as her secret plan comes to light.
Providing valuable support are Katrina Tharin and Tim Bass as Violet's sister Mattie Fae and her husband, Charlie. Tharin makes Mattie Fae's sharp tongue casually cruel and then turns pathetic when her secret is revealed. Bass brings a breath of humor to the proceedings as the kind of guy who takes a gulp from his Budweiser before stammering through the blessing over a family meal.
Some of the younger cast members are stiffer, less seasoned, but not to the detriment of the story, which gets more engrossing as the three-act play progresses.
High-school student Sarah Andrew, who plays Barbara's teen daughter, has the perfect sneer as one plot thread demonstrates how parenting mistakes can trickle from generation to generation.
"August: Osage County" won the 2008 best-play Tony Award, a Pulitzer Prize for playwright Tracy Letts and a boatload of critical raves. A film version, starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, is planned for release this fall. This is the first time "August: Osage County" has been staged in Central Florida, and Theatre Downtown's production provides a very fine introduction to this modern American classic.
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See for yourself
•What: Theatre Downtown production of the Tracy Letts drama 'August: Osage County'
•When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays March 20 and 27; through March 27
•Where: Theatre Downtown, 2113 N. Orange Ave., Orlando
•Tickets: $20; $16 for seniors and students