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What could possibly possess a man to jump into the water and choose not to swim?

This is the dark and unanswerable question at the black heart of “August: Osage County,” a triumph of magisterial melodrama by Tracy Letts that opened Friday night in the Kavinoky Theatre.

The play, by the preternaturally gifted Chicago playwright Tracy Letts, shares certain strands of its DNA with Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and others with the unvarnished humor of sitcoms like “Roseanne.” The result is a theatergoing experience specifically engineered to access the encrypted emotions of a generation raised on the television of the late 20th century. It has thus served as a gateway drug into the special virtues of theater for those who might not have believed it had anything useful to tell them.

That is to say: “August” is not for theatergoing veterans, who have tended to dismiss it as too clichéd in its conceit or brash in its execution to be considered serious theater. But it is melodramatic by design – something like a Pedro Almodovar film without the camp – and therein lies its particular brilliance.

The show transports us to present-day Oklahoma, to an old family farmhouse that has seen better days. As it opens, we meet the weary patriarch Beverly Weston (Saul Elkin) holding forth on his alcoholism and his love for literature. He is shortly to wander off into the night toward an uncertain fate.

What drives him away becomes clear soon enough, when a shrill yell comes from somewhere offstage. It’s the voice of his cancer-afflicted, pill-addicted wife Violet (the extraordinary Sheila McCarthy), a primordial creature doomed by genetics and fate to inflict the pain of her illness, her addiction and her apparently wretched childhood on anyone within shrieking range.

Because of Beverly’s flight from his wife’s intolerable rage, the Weston children come flocking home to help. But they only find Violet, who delivers a series of remarkable diatribes – both drug-induced and terrifyingly clear-eyed – to excoriate her progeny for an endless litany of sins real and imagined.

We meet the put-upon Barbara (Eileen Dugan, who excels at playing exasperated sisters), whose impending divorce and missing father conspire to drive her to a very dark place, indeed. Her sister, Mattie Fay (Kelli Bocock-Natale), takes out her own unhappiness on her good-hearted husband (Norman Sham) and hapless son (Steve Copps). Another sister, Iby (the pace-setting Kristen Tripp Kelley), stayed close to home and is still plotting to escape her mother’s sphere of influence.

The Kavinoky has pulled off a fine production of Letts’ modern classic under the smart direction of Bob Waterhouse, a British-born man of the theater who clearly understands the peculiarly American sensibility and mood this play requires.

It takes an extremely delicate treatment from the cast, however, to activate the play’s most melodramatic scenes in ways that don’t come off as cheesy. Timing and chemistry issues afflict too many exchanges, particularly between Barbara and her husband (Tim Newell) and Mattie Fay and others. But McCarthy’s performance, clearly the result of an expedition deep into the soul of her tortured character, provides the unrelenting force behind the production and helps to allay concerns about timing and casting.

The show is essentially a series of miniature soap operas, each one intersecting in a way that deepens our sense of the genuine hopelessness of each character’s life. “August” can be read in any number of ways, but it is particularly interesting as a study in the ripples of abuse traveling across multiple generations. Violet carries the acid-green rage of her parents just as Barbara carries the rage of Violet, and, undoubtedly, young Jean will carry some version of that rage herself.

Letts makes us wonder whether the sort of merciless familial violence his characters embody is immutable and constant, or, like a radioactive element, subject to a half-life. That latter theory would constitute a form of hope, but that word is not in the vocabulary of “August: Osage County.”

What the play contains is pain, the sort of pain that infects everything around it – the sort of pain from which it’s just about impossible to look away.

review

Three stars

What: “August: Osage County”

When: Through May 19

Where: Kavinoky Theatre, 320 Porter Ave.

Tickets: $35 to $39

Info: 829-7668 or www.kavinokytheatre.com

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com