“This is not the Midwest,” says a character in Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, speaking of the play’s setting in rural Oklahoma. “Michigan is the Midwest, God knows why. This is the Plains: a state of mind, right? Some spiritual affliction, like the blues?” The core of the play is revealed here, for August: Osage County is a story about the Plains—a “hot, flat nothing,” inhospitable and showing little promise for the future.

Letts’ caustic tour de force, winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and one of the biggest things to hit American theater in the past several years, is now in the South Bay for the first time in a production by City Lights Theater Company, directed by Virginia Drake.

August: Osage County begins by introducing Beverly Weston, an alcoholic, T.S. Eliot-quoting ex-poet (played by Michael J. West) who subsequently vanishes, leaving his drug-addicted wife, Violet, to fend for herself. This causes the embittered Weston clan, including daughters Barbara, Ivy and Karen (Diahanna Davidson, Lisa Mallette and Dana Zook, respectively), to assemble at the family homestead.

The characters bring ugly baggage with them—a cheating husband, a pot-smoking daughter, an unctuous fiancée and years’ worth of animosities—but far worse things lurk below the surface, and the characters that aren’t completely jaded at the outset eventually see their hopes dashed.

Violet, portrayed by Lillian Bogovich with the perfect mix of calculating cruelty and brain-damaged abjectness, takes every opportunity to savagely berate those around her. Diahanna Davidson’s Barbara, who arrives as the voice of reason, proves just as intractable as her mother, and the scenes where Davidson and Bogovich duke it out are the production’s most electrifying. Jackie O’Keefe is sardonically funny as the nasty Aunt Mattie Fae, while Alika Ululani Spencer provides the perfect audience surrogate as a housekeeper stuck in the middle of the madness.

Heat is an ever-present theme. We are told that the Weston house is so hot that tropical pet birds cannot survive in it, and looking at the actors, we believe it. They seem to be burning up on the inside and outside, and together, they conjure a sense of smoldering uneasiness. It’s one reason why this nearly three and a half hour play never wears out its welcome—the stage is like a simmering pot, always ready to boil over into disaster.

August: Osage County
Runs through Oct. 23
City Lights Theater Company, San Jose

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