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'August: Osage County' gets a standing O

When the going gets tough, the tough — build tents?

A bit more than two weeks after the main beam in its workhorse Bowmer Theatre cracked spectacularly and 13 days after the idea was first hatched, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival on Thursday afternoon opened the first in a series of plays it will present in a big tent in Lithia Park. It has dubbed the transplanted shows Bowmer in the Park.

The OSF's production of "August: Osage County," Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about members of a dysfunctional family having it out on the plains of Oklahoma, hit the boards at 1:30 p.m. in makeshift digs just a waddle up from the park's lower duck pond. The performance marked the fourth venue in which actors and technicians have presented the play in more than two weeks.

Despite a few challenges, the experiment must be counted a success. Yes, it was hot. Yes, there were sound issues. No, it's not the Bowmer. Yes, it was still rousing theater.

The tent holds 598, about the same as the Bowmer. Other than a few flat rows down front, most of the aisles are raked so that there are no bad sight lines. The floors are rubberized to prevent slipping. The chairs, well, they could be worse.

The windowless tent does a fair job of omitting light, so the production's lighting was effective, going down on one part of the stage and coming up on another to signal a change of scenes, for example.

The OSF's Christopher Acebo has created a new, somewhat generic set for the four productions that will be seen in the tent to share, each one trimming it out and adding its props. For "August," the set effectively, if minimally, rendered the two main playing levels, the first floor of the house, where most of the action takes place, and an upper level where Violet Weston (Judith-Marie Bergan) has her lair, make that her bedroom.

A quick refresher. Beverly Weston, a one-book poet and the alcoholic college professor patriarch of a family with lots of, er, interpersonal problems, has killed himself, and the three daughters of Beverly and his acid-tongued wife, Violet, have gathered with their spouses and/or main squeezes to bury the old man and, unwittingly, reap the various whirlwinds that have been blowing through the family for generations.

There's Violet's vulgar sister Mattie Fae (Catherine Coulson). There are Violet's three daughters, strong Barbara (Robynn Rodriguez), mousy Ivy (Terri McMahon) and self-deluding Karen (Kate Mulligan). Each is in a relationship that's more hopeless, corrosive and ridiculous than the last. Themes include drug addiction, alcoholism, rape, incest, insanity, suicide and recreational cruelty.

The first two acts are darkly comic and very funny. When Karen says you have to hand it to anybody who can stay married as long as Beverly and Violet, Ivy, after a pause, says, "Karen, he killed himself." It's a tribute to the actors, who had to learn new sets and blocking, that the rhythm is still there.

In the last act (the play is three-and-a-half hours long with two intermissions), Letts knocks the bottom from under the characters, bad goes to worse, and most of the pitiless culmination is revealed though inspired, naked-to-the-bone dialogue.

It's crucial for actors to be heard clearly, of course. The sound in the tent on Thursday was not up to the level of the Bowmer. It wasn't bad, but if you didn't know the play you may have had some issues.

The sound design worked fine. But the fabric of the tent gobbles up and swallows dialogue, especially consonants. The actors weren't miked up, but the stage was, with sometimes uneven results. A speech by an actor on one part of the stage was easy to understand, the reply from a different spot muddy.

The problem was exacerbated by the question of how to balance the acoustic demands against the use of the air conditioning on a hot day. In the first act the lines were mostly clear but the tent was warm. When they turned up the air in the second act the tent grew cool but bits of dialogue were muffled. They seemed to have dialed in a better balance in the third act.

I've spent way too much time describing the sound. It's not that bad, and it will undoubtedly be fine-tuned as these shows go on. In the end, the experience most people were talking about Thursday afternoon was that of having seen a riveting play, a play like a punch in the guts, buoyed especially by the performances of Bergan and Rodriguez. The two are playing roles that must be emotionally exhausting under the best conditions, and the audience, keyed on the characters and not its own surroundings, responded with a standing ovation.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.