Families that flay together can't stay together for long.
That's just one of life's painful little lessons conveyed to searing effect in "August: Osage County," the 2008 Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play by Tracy Letts now receiving its Baltimore premiere under the happiest of circumstances — the inauguration of much-anticipated Everyman Theatre on West Fayette Street.
The vibrant production provides a fitting display for the handsome new facility, where the Empire, Palace and Town theaters once operated.
To begin with, there's the asset of a proper stage, capable of handling the three-level set required by "August," a set that would have been impossible at the company's previous, low-ceilinged venue.
Resident scenic designer Daniel Ettinger deftly evokes the aging home 60 miles from Tulsa, where the three-hour-plus saga of the Weston Family unfolds seamlessly. And what a saga it is.
Letts conjures up a nightmare of family troubles — suicide, infidelity, addiction, smoldering grudges. The Westons put the "dis" and the "shun" in dysfunction, but, in a weird way, they put the fun in it, too. You end up laughing through some pretty rough clawing and carping, thanks to the playwright's flair for dark comedy.
The play requires a large, cohesive cast and, for the most part, that's what Everyman delivers in a staging fluently directed by the company's founding artistic director, Vincent Lancisi.
At the center of the action is Violet, the pill-popping, cancer-ridden matriarch of the household with an unsettling habit of "truth-telling." Linda Thorson, a veteran of the theater and TV (notably "The Avengers") making her Everyman debut, seizes the role forcefully.
Her portrayal has a compelling, almost diabolic dynamism. And when the character is at her most vulnerable, Thorson affectingly opens a window into the tortured and torturing woman's soul.
When Violet's husband Beverly (the reliable Carl Schurr) disappears, the couple's three daughters return home, each bearing emotional baggage from the past and a whole mess of fresh tension involving the men in their lives.
Deborah Hazlett, as the oldest and most cynical daughter, Barbara, gives a superb performance, alive with nuance and alert to the smallest shifts in the play's tone. Maia DeSanti also does an admirable job as the chatty, naive youngest daughter, Karen. The third sibling, Ivy, who has perhaps the toughest road ahead by the time the curtain falls, is played ably, if a little stiffly, by Beth Hylton.
There are standout contributions from Nancy Robinette and Wil Love as Mattie Fae and Charlie Aiken, respectively, tense sister and brother-in-law of Violet. Both provide multilayered interpretations that provide some of the most memorable dramatic and comic sparks alike.
There is some unevenness in the rest of the cast but more than enough strengths to effectively fill out this play, at once sprawling yet subtly symmetrical, that has so much to say about the ever-fragile state of the human condition.
"August: Osage County" runs through Feb. 17 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St. Call 410-752-2208 or go to everymantheatre.org.