When I previewed “August: Osage County,” I joked that it was like, er, every other serious play: a dysfunctional family arguing over a dinner table. Now that I’ve actually seen the play, I can say with confidence that it is and it isn’t. “August: Osage County” is fully aware of its influences; this is a work that builds on that of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, but it also stands on its own. As such, it feels timeless—while still grounded in the present.

It’s an impressive feat, and it has earned “August: Osage County” wide acclaim. In addition to winning the 2008 Tony, the play’s author, Tracy Letts, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Yes, it really is that good. Clocking in at three-and-a-half hours (including two 10-minute intermissions), “August: Osage County” is a complex and breathtaking piece of drama. The writing is rich, the characters endlessly fascinating. Even without a superb cast, this would be a spectacle to behold.

But hey, that superb cast doesn’t hurt. The current San Francisco production boasts a fine ensemble, headed by veteran actor Estelle Parsons. As fiery matriarch Violet Weston, Parsons commands the stage—even more impressive when you note that the woman is 81-years-old. The entire cast is commendable, but special attention should also be given to the actors who play the three daughters Violet torments: Ivy (Angelica Torn), Barbara (Shannon Cochran), and Karen (Amy Warren). Cochran provides one of the play’s finest moments in the explosive conclusion to the second act.

Alcoholism. Addiction. Incest. Pedophilia. It sounds heavy—and OK, it is—but “August: Osage County” is also one of the funniest plays I’ve ever seen. Each scene is laugh-out-loud hilarious, even with biting insults and gasp-worthy revelations flying across the stage. Letts is a master of dark comedy; he has the perfect grasp on when to let loose with a joke, and when to hold back. Sometimes the funniest moments are also the most subdued.

“August: Osage County” is long but not too long. Dark but not too dark. In short, it’s the perfect night at the theater, whether you’re a veteran of those epic dramas (O’Neill fans, I’m looking at you) or not.

See “August: Osage County” at the Curran Theatre, from now to September 6. Tickets can be purchased on the SHN website.

Photo courtesy SHN.

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