December 26, 2008

August: Osage County, National Theatre

5 stars

In Oklahoma it’s not OK

Watching August: Osage County simulates what it must have been like attending the first production of a play by Pinter, Miller or Albee – it feels momentous, groundbreaking and deeply uncomfortable. What’s more, it has been written and performed astride an era which, for America and the rest of the world, had felt deeply uncomfortable during the Bush administration, but which has now become momentous and groundbreaking with the imminence of Present Elect Obama. The Chicago-based Steppenwolf Ensemble performing Tracy Letts’s new play have expressed their joy that they can now come to Britain with their heads held high, rather than full of apology and embarrassment at America’s blunders. August: Osage County then, it seems, implicitly critiques the diseased American psyche of the Bush years, as much as explicitly examining the corruption and factions that lie within a family. Despite Letts’s play lasting a good three and a half hours, you leave as one leaves Narnia – feeling a heck of a lot has happened, but barely any time has passed.

The immensely talented Steppenwolf ensemble, of which Tracy Letts has been a member since 1985, clearly “know” this play in the biblical sense – down to its most intimate parts. They perform it with immaculate timing, truthfulness and a sense of humour of which there is never a drought, even in the play’s darkest moments. In this busily populated piece set in a scarcely populated region of Oklahoma, daughters and relatives gather after a father commits suicide. The death, however, only prompts grudges, tensions and secrets to surface and, in itself, is remarkably absent from the action of the play. This is no time for consoling or counselling and, instead, individuals verbally hack each other to pieces in a ruthless, but mutual, family feud.

At the decomposing heart of this family are two characters: Violet Weston, superbly played by Deanna Dunagan, is a falcon disguised as a sparrow (interesting that Violet is only one letter short of Violent). As mother, she swoops on her daughters with a shrill voice and a keen eye and, even under the destabilising influence of drugs, Violet is never afraid to stare the truth in the eye and articulate it to the largest possible audience. The other character is Johnna, a Native American girl, who is employed by the father, shortly before his death, in order to look after the household. Johnna, played with beautiful serenity by Kimberly Guerrero, is often seen calmly reading the father’s poetry in the cramped attic room of the house, and is the one figure of calm in the house to whom the family turn when they are at their wits’ end.

As this family’s twisted back-stories unfold, the imaginatively and honestly drawn characters each become a vessel for our sympathy – whether it’s because they’re struggling with domineering parents, living with unfaithful partners, or just simply fighting growing old. What is, at times, a theatrical whirlwind as all of the thirteen characters descend onto one scene, at other times is a chamber play in which we witness the intimate, but painful, conversation as a wife questions her husband as to why he prefers his younger student to her.

Letts refrains from ladling on the modern themes with the intention of shocking us or preaching about how we all must change. Nor does he let the convention of theatre get in the way of its message. Indeed, in some ways, August: Osage County feels distinctly old-fashioned in its use of a naturalistic set and acting style and its adherence to the structure of the well-made play. Letts, in an unremarkable way, is simply presenting us with a family that possesses the problems most families do – the question of who has authority, the difference between liking and loving, and the need always to blame somebody in situations that go wrong. The playwright’s caustic dialogue, however, and his ear for rhythm and humour make the play stand alone from the various other “family” dramas written in recent years.

Whether another ensemble could do as fine a job as the Steppenwolf have done with Letts’s play is difficult to predict. But, certainly, this is a play that I can see going down in history alongside Death of a Salesman, Look Back in Anger and The Birthday Party. Pretty soon, A-Level syllabi will be asking questions not only about The Crucible and McCarthyism, but also about August: Osage County and Obamania.


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