August: Osage County @ National Theatre, London

cast list
Deanna Dunagan, Amy Morton, Jeff Perry, Chelcie Ross, Molly Ransom, Sally Murphy, Mariann Mayberry, Rondi Reed, Paul Vincent O’Connor, Ian Barford, Kimberly Guerrero, Gary Cole, Troy West

directed by
Anna D Shapiro
“I drink; my wife takes pills.” This is how Beverly, the patriarch of the Weston family, summarises his marriage in the prologue of Tracy Letts‘ Tony Award-winning play.

It is the unexpected disappearance of Beverly Weston that brings his three middle aged daughters back to the family home in Pawhuska Oklahoma.

Eldest daughter Barbara is in the process of separating from her husband, Bill, who has had an affair with a student and the wounds are still raw.

Karen, the youngest, has come up from Florida where she is living with her oily fianc Steve and can’t help telling everyone just exactly how happy she finally is.
Middle daughter Ivy is the only one who has stayed close to her parents, in terms of distance at least, but it is clear she is a disappointment to her petite, pill-raddled mother. Ivy’s dress sense, her lack of husband: there’s nothing that her daughter does that Violet Weston won’t pick at and ridicule.

Also on board are Violet’s sister Mattie Fay and her husband Chares. Mattie Fay has Violet’s forthright manner but without the bitter undertow, unless that is she is discussing her son, Little Charles, who she seems to regard as an imbecile.

Lett’s ambitious play premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in summer 2007 before transferring to Broadway where it won the Tony for Best Play and won Letts the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It arrives at the National with nine of its original 13 cast members. It seems nigh on impossible to write about the play without referencing its length three acts, two intervals totalling just under three and a half hours. It’s a big thing, in every sense; a play very much in the tradition of Eugene O’Neill and Edward Albee.

The action takes place on Todd Rosenthal’s striking Gothic dolls’ house set: three stories and a pitched roof, with the window blinds taped shut to blur the line between night and day; the shape of it reminds one of the Psycho house and that other mother hidden within.

The cast are superb, not a weak performance among them. Violet is played wonderfully by Deanna Dunagan as a viper in satin pyjamas with a (literally) cancerous mouth. Amy Morton is excellent as Barbara, subtly unravelling, the capacity to become just like her parents clearly written within her, and Rondi Reed also makes a strong impression as the mouthy Mattie Fay.

But the play doesn’t quite justify its roomy three act structure. The first act is all build up, slow burn and seed-laying. This sets things up perfectly for the spectacular second act, mainly given over to the most wonderfully volatile family dinner, in which the Westons clad in funeral black are one by one subjected to the sting of Violet’s tongue. But in the third act the balance between jet black comedy and true tragedy is fudged. The constant stream of revelation and the extreme bleakness of the piece start to become silly, excessive, almost soapy in tone. Violet, having driven every family member away from her, alienates the audience too, and the pain of the play’s final moments is diluted as a result.

The play is also hamstrung by its desire to say Big Things about American Society: the fragmentation of families, the resulting social break down; these moments are too clearly signposted, too self-conscious. As Letts has said, this is a pre-Obama play, and the new sense of hope and optimism in America is entirely absent. There are other little niggles. Though there is much to enjoy in Anna Shapiro’s production, the necessary sense of oppressive heat and the hot, flat nothing of the Oklahoma plains, while spoken of, don’t come through as clearly as they could. Stephen, Karen’s fianc (played in the London production by Gary Cole), is nothing more than a one-note baddie and Johnna, the Native American housekeeper (Kimberly Guerrero), is given precious little to do as a character, other than act as a reminder that there are normal, pleasant people in this world. There is however something quite amusing about her sitting placidly in the attic reading TS Eliot while this familial chaos erupts beneath her.

The first great American play of the 21st century? That’s probably overstating it, but it has much to recommend it: the ensemble acting is superb and it boasts one utterly brilliant central scene that more than makes up for the somewhat laboured final third.

Read the musicOMH interview with Tracy Letts

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