Monday, August 30, 2010

August: Osage County

Sydney Theatre Company and The Sydney Morning Herald present AUGUST:OSAGE COUNTY by Tracy Letts at the Sydney Theatre.

"All happy families resemble one another; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" thus begins Leo Tolstoy's ANNA KARENINA, and he ought to have known!

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY has us meet the Weston family in a large rambling country house outside Pawhusta, Oklahoma, sixty miles north-west of Tulsa, and boy, are they unhappy! Over three and a half hours we watch the unique unhappiness of this family unravel in front of us. It sure is a roller coaster ride of shock and horror delivered in a sugar coating of deliberate comic audacity of truth telling that most of us wish we had the daring to engage in at the dutiful Family Home gatherings at Christmas and other 'tribal' ceremonies: christenings, birthdays, marriages and funerals. That we don't do so, makes this play experience cathartic indeed, for, the Weston family, under these circumstances, do.

The Patriarch, Beverly (Chelcie Ross), ups and disappears and dies after the first scene, thus requiring a gathering of the immediate family, for a funeral. The Matriarch, Violet (Deanna Dunagan); their Eldest Daughter, Barbara (Amy Morton); Husband, Bill (Jeff Perry); and daughter, Jean (Molly Hanson). The Middle Daughter, Ivy Weston (Sally Murphy); The Youngest Daughter, Karen Weston (Mariann Mayberry); and fiance, Steve (Gary Cole). Violet's sister, Mattie Fae (Rondi Reed); her husband, Charlie (Paul Vincent O'Connor); and son Little Charles (Gary Wilmes), all arrive.

Matriarch, Violet is a prescription drug addict and she has a lot to unload and with the permissiveness of her addiction it comes in barrage shootings of her family. The skeletons of a family history are pulled out of the closet and rattled vigorously for all to either wincingly remember, repeat or discover, and certainly, endure.

The patriarch, Beverly Weston quotes T.S.Eliot, the first words of the play, "Life is very long". The melodrama of the long lives of this entwined family and it's extended world, the Sheriff, Deon Gilbeau ( Troy West) and the newly employed housekeeper, a local American Indian, Johnna Monevata (Kimberly Guerrero) are revealed in twists and turns of bravura comic writing of great skill.

The production from the Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago, under the direction of Anna D. Shapiro, within a detailed and impressive house design by Todd Rosenthal, costumed authentically by Anna Kuzmanic, features a beautiful ensemble of actors and acting that never misses a beat of its timing and, mostly, does not stray from truthful and wonderfully realised "naturalistic" creations of character. That the work is secure and assured is recognised by the Sydney audience who attach themselves to the drama/comedy of this family with rapturous pleasure. Gasps of shock and explosive guffaws of laughter echo around the auditorium continuously throughout the long night and the final applause on the curtain call was thunderous and grateful for a great night in the theatre.

Nothing wrong with naturalism as presented here by this Chicago based company. It is still the anchoring form experience of the ordinary theatre going public. However efficacious it might be to have the explorations of form by some contemporary writers and auteurs among our directors, this 'old fashioned' form of storytelling packs a wallop both as comedy and drama, still. The general public seem to have the Sydney Theatre packed to the rafters and excited by the experience. Word of mouth about this play is great. Get a ticket if you can.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company was formed in 1976. This was an actor driven conglomeration and is still so today. Mr Perry one of the founding members, on tour here, playing Bill Fordham, says it began with a group of actors trying to ensure work for themselves by giving themselves opportunities to act. It began with 9 actors including, now theatre and film luminaries, Joan Allen, John Malkovitch, Gary Sinise, and now has some 43 actors on its roster. It produces up to 14 productions each year in three Chicago theatre spaces. It is interesting to see the list of names in the program. It's very enlightening to see the cross pollinated responsibilities of the retinue. That Tracy Letts the writer of AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, is also a regular actor for the company and Mr Perry sometimes director/teacher with the company as is Ms Morton, may indicate the strength of this company's survival technique. The valued commitment and cultural memory of the founders cherished and enhanced with continuous input from the zeitgeist of evolving talents and gifts, and the challenge of new members.

I have had the opportunity of seeing this company at work over several decades. TRUE WEST by Sam Shepard with Mr Malkovitch and Sinise at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York and a few years ago the adaptation of the Steinbeck novel THE GRAPES OF WRATH on Broadway. Our companies could do well to study the survival integrities of this company that has permitted it to sustain its existence and also achieve excellence in its output over the last thirty odd years.

The standout performance in this production comes from Amy Morton as Barbara, the eldest daughter, who gradually finds herself embattled, being webbed back into the family house with all the responsibilities of the carer of the dwindling Violet, and facing the growing and awful sense of horror, as her husband and child abandon her, there, that Nancy Friday's book MY MOTHER MYSELF is the ultimate fate she will inherit. Ms Morton scales the journey of the character with great finesse and elegance of judgement.

Deanna Dunagan creates Violet as feisty, indomitably powerful and unpredictably dangerous, a loose cannon of careening lethalness. This is a classic bravura performance, that has the textual support to make it the 'showy' part. It is in very expert hands. Ms Reed as Mattie Fae, similarly wrests the most out of her opportunities, as a comic diversion in the writing, if not always able to retrieve the pathos of the confrontation with Mattie Fae's life choices and husband in the third act to compelling depths.

It is a woman's play- they are the centre of the machinations of this work. Mr Letts has written the play with the principal roles for the women, and all rise to the gifts given them by this in-house writer expertly and lovingly. The opening scene of act three features a wonderful trio for the three sisters expanded later to a quartet with the addition of Violet, is one of the highlights of the writing and playing.

The supporting roles are uncharacteristically handed out to the men. The roles, although relatively secondary, are all played with great integrity and effect. The solidity and dignity of Mr O'Connor as Charlie, the loyal but exhausted bewilderment of Mr Perry as Bill, the sleazy creepiness of Steve by Mr Cole are exemplars of ensemble playing.

This is a very good play. That the New York Times calls it "...The most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years" however seems to me a fairly potent statement about the lesser quality of work that Broadway now sees on its stages.

Christopher Bigsby in an article written for the National Theatre,London, performances of this production, and re-printed here in the Sydney Theatre program begins "The family - according to Ronald Regan, the country's only divorced President, and head of a dysfunctional one himself - lies at the heart of the American experience. In a Christmas address, in 1988, he insisted that it was 'the nucleus of civilization'. In a State of the Union address it became 'the moral core of our society,' that brought Americans together as one people. Perversely, America's playwrights have lined up to cast their contrary votes."

So when AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is placed beside some of the great family plays of the American theatre of the past: LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, DEATH OF A SALESMAN, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, A DELICATE BALANCE, BURIED CHILD, substance or the depth of it appears to be lacking.

The first two acts of this play are marvellous in the skill of the character revelations, the shock and awe of the wonderful placement of the comedy, the smooth and deliciously 'thrilling' plotting of the storytelling, but it seems to lack the potency of cultural depth. It is a boulevard comedy of audacious manners - nothing much more or less. Focused, over familiarly, on the pot boiling techniques of soap opera television writing. Entertainment not much more. I was very disappointed in that daring second interval.

It is not until the third act that the play begins to elevate into anything like a reverberating cultural reflection. Almost, too belatedly for me.

Then, Barbara begins to ruminate on the tragedy of the so called 'Greatest Generation' of which Violet and Beverly are representatives: "Greatest Generation, my ass. Are they really considering ALL the generations? Maybe there are some generations from the IRON AGE that could compete."

Ivy laments "I can't perpetuate these myths of family or sisterhood anymore. We're all just people, some of us accidentally connected by genetics, a random selection of cells. Nothing more."

Barbara, quoting her father " 'You know, this country was always pretty much a whorehouse, but at least it used to have some promise. Now it's just a shithole'. And I think now maybe he was talking about something else, something more specific, something more personal to him...this house? This family? His marriage? Himself? I don't know. But there was something sad in his voice - or no, not sad, he always sounded sad - something more hopeless than that. As if it had already happened. As if whatever was disappearing had already disappeared. As if it was too late. As if it was already over. And no one saw it go. This country, this experiment, America, this hubris: what a lament, if no one saw it go. Here today, gone tomorrow. (Beat) Dissipation is actually worse than cataclysm."

And sitting in the attic room, visually hovering over this pathetic household, sits Johnna Monevata or Youngbird - a survivor of the original American Indian tribe of these Plains - the Cheyenne. Employed to care for this disintegrating family in this century old dilapidating house, in the last image of the play, Youngbird holds the deserted Violet's head, and rocks her singing "This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends..." while Violet recites " and then you're gone, and then you're gone, and then you're gone, and then you're gone…"

Comparatively, in my estimation of the writing of the past family plays, above, this play does not have the consistency of vision or depth of writing skills. Then again, I am not an American experiencing the country about me as reflected in the arts of the time.

A young American man and his father now living in Australia, who both attended a performance here in Sydney, expressed a sense of mourning when they left the theatre. A mourning for the smashed dream of the country of the play's origin. Their former home. Mr Perry at a question and answer session, here in Sydney, reflected that that is the perceived affect that has gradually wreathed around the work. Originally a simple fictional memory extrapolation of his family, Mr Letts has, perhaps, unconsciously, then, touched a little deeper.

This gave me pause.

However on my recent sojourn in the United States, the new theatre that I saw was collectively underwhelming ( Particularly in contrast to the London theatre experience earlier in the year). A play on Broadway, NEXT FALL, was spoken of as one of the best of this season - sad to think that this was so. Truly then a time to mourn. What a lament if we did not see it go. The writing in the theatre. What a lament if we keep crediting writing that disappoints on quality.

Mr Albee, when next?

Again, reflect further, Kevin. The latest Australian family drama GWEN IN PURGATORY, now at Belvoir St., hardly matches the writing of this play by Mr Letts.

What should I be mourning? What?

Indeed, what?

Do not miss the opportunity of seeing AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY. Every family member will feel appreciated.


Anonymous said...

I haven't seen the Steppenwolf production, but I did see the MTC production in Melbourne earlier this year. Like you, I don't think it a great play (the term that is being bandied about); rather, it is something different but akin: a play that offers great acting opportunities to its cast. The MTC production was - in the main - superbly cast, and it gave the best example of ensemble acting that I have seen in this country. Robyn Nevin and Jane Menelaus were bpth something like great; not far behind were Deidre Rubenstein (better than I have ever seen her before), Robert Menzies (cast against type and unrecognizable), Roger Oakley, Sean Taylor, and others. It's a pity that you are not able to compare the productions

Tom Healey said...

Kevin - so glad to read a review of this writing that is both admiring (as I was) and also critical of its shortcomings. Perhaps I am biased but I think Angels In America shifted the paradigm of the great American Family play, probably forever. AOC does feel. for all its greatness, like a look backwards. Perhaps that is symptomatic of the sense of Gotterdamerung that seems to be haunting the US since 9/11?

Cheers, Tom Healey

Anonymous said...

Anyone out there studying BEVERLY in American letters and life? The towns in Massachusetts, Ohio and West Virginia and Beverly Hills in Los Angeles and now the father figure in August:Osage County. (NB THE CRUCIBLE). Gotta be more to this. Thanks for the fair and balanced review KJ. Wonder what it cost the STC. All for now - TLJ

Mr Mink said...

Kevin, I am not entirely sure that the star power of Andrew and Cate, which has no doubt contributed to the ability for us to see this Steppenwolf production in Sydney, is a good thing or not. no doubt the play has been packed out because it is a lot cheaper to go to see this legendary company at Walsh Bay rather than buy an air ticket to Chicago! OK it is supposedly an American "classic" (and you have said enough about that) and we get to see a classic American production. But as with the Cate performance in Streetcar and all the fawning over that, and its subsequent export to Broadway - are we really doing any cultural cross-pollination here, with notional benefits for Australian performance, or are we just still being somewhat cringeworthy about imports being better than the local product? Yes it was a good production (and I got a nice cheap $55 ticket to a Wednesday matinee) and the acting ensemble was excellent. I should stop otherwise this will sound like a Bob Katter protectionist theatre review!

May Belle said...

Of course "August - Osage County" packs them in! This is a good production by an excellent ensemble of a well-written three-part mini-series, bordering on, with not a small touch of melodrama. This play is not great writing for theatre. It's clever writing for a couple of generations brought up on television drama. Yet sometimes it even felt too old-fashioned for that; for the whole first act I thought the play was set in the late sixties, early seventies, and if I hadn't known who Tracy Letts is, I'd have thought it was written then, too. But I agree with you about the high standard of the acting ensemble. May Belle