August Osage County, a semi-autobiographical drama written by American playwright Tracy Letts and currently showing as part of the mainstream Melbourne Theatre Company season, is one hell of a play.
Universally hailed as the best new American play in a generation, August began its life at Letts’ artistic home, the Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago, in June 2007. After a highly successful run, it succeeded in the rare achievement of moving to Broadway’s Imperial Theatre with virtually the entire original Chicago cast in tow (11 of the 13 actors).
Jilted by the theatre stagehand strike in late 2007, August eventually opened to critical acclaim. Such was its commercial success (positive press reviews and strong word of mouth resulting in back to back sold out performances) that the company packed up its three-storey set and moved to the Music Box Theatre (next door) in order to enjoy an open-ended run, where it still plays today.
Known across the globe as the only newspaper capable of closing a theatre show prematurely (ask those connected to the musical Glory Days, whose show closed on Broadway on May 6, 2008 after only one performance), the New York Times raved about August Osage County. It is uncommon to see a New York Times theatre reviewer use superlatives, but on this occasion there were plenty, as Charles Isherwood noted August was:
flat-out, no asterisks and without qualifications, the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years.
I saw August Osage County on Broadway in March 2008 on a performing arts tour and walked out of the theatre telling my Drama students that was one of the best lessons in theatre they’ll ever receive. The following month, a few weeks after our return home to Melbourne, the play won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. By June, Deanna Dunagan, who portrayed the play’s protagonist Violet Weston, won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play, with the production winning the Tony for Best Play on Broadway that year. And so it was no doubt with pleasure that Melbourne Theatre Company Artistic Director, Simon Phillips, secured the performing rights to this fabulous play for Australian audiences.
Seven genres in one, this is a domestic drama, displaying the trials of an ordinary American family in Oklahoma. We identify with the characters, their lives, their predicaments, and their sorrows. There are elements of tragicomedy in the play, as it swings wildly, but plausibly, from happiness to disaster in the blink of an eye. But there are also pieces of a soap opera weaved neatly into the mix, as the characters are just that bit larger than ordinary citizens, so the audience becomes hooked on the fantasy of their lives. Many would argue there’s more than a touch of melodrama in August, due to its many subplots and unseen twists. Or is it a modern-day sitcom? To top it all off, this play is very much a black comedy, as we laugh at the many memorable lines at the most inappropriate of times. Add to this, Letts openly admits his play also has a political edge; an allegory for life under the Bush administration.
August Osage County is a paradox. It is a play of yesteryear. Letts has taken so many risks to allow it to sit alongside its contemporaries on the modern stage, because its form belongs to another generation. Yet its content is so strikingly relevant to our own. August follows the tried and tested formula of the well-made play, in this case three acts and nine scenes. Structurally, it is perfect (and ironically conservative) and at three hours long, you won’t look at your watch once. But this is a formula that does not sit comfortably in contemporary theatre. Many of today’s play consist of two acts, a number of smaller scenes and an eclectic mix of performance styles all in the one play. August Osage County, this is not.
This play is also not for the faint-hearted. With sexual misbehaviour, drug addiction and misuse, (unknowing) incest, a fourteen-year-old character smoking pot on stage and a whole lotta swearing (even the “C” word gets a guernsey), August Osage County packs a powerful punch. But it is Letts’ crafty playwriting that allows August to be many things to many people. A play about a dysfunctional American family has been seen many times before. Somehow, though, Lett’s pulls it off. Much of the play is as scary as it is hilarious; the first few times many in the audience don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
This play is about as naturalistic as you can get in mainstream contemporary theatre. And while so many commercial plays today are banal naturalistic dramas with four characters and a minimalistic set, this is an example of good naturalistic theatre with a towering three-storey set by Tony-nominated designer Dale Ferguson and thirteen fully-rounded characters; two to three times the cast of most contemporary mainstream plays.
This design, slightly different to the Broadway set, is impressive indeed, but perhaps a little too ambitious, resulting in a few sight line issues for those against the dress circle walls. The set is as much of a monster as Violet Weston herself, a cut-out house with two staircases, multiple rooms, a front porch and an attention to detail Ibsen and Chekhov would have been proud of.
August Osage County is set in the present day (2007) and follows the life of an Oklahoma family, the Weston’s, who get together for a reunion of sorts, to determine why their father suddenly disappeared for no apparent reason. The acting style is purely naturalistic, complete with backs to the audience on occasions. Nothing is “staged” and everything is real, sometimes too real.
If ever there were a role for Robyn Nevin, Violet Weston, the play’s matriarch and protagonist, has to be it. Violet is addicted to prescription pills and automatically we have comparisons with Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a mother addicted to morphine throughout the play. Violet also has a razor-sharp tongue like you’ve never heard before, publicly devouring those around her that matter most, one by one, until all before her have been defeated. Here we see Letts’ homage to similar characters in the canon of great American plays, such as Martha in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Nevin’s portrayal of Violet, so often stumbling and incoherent on her pills, is a powerful performance. The role, one of the very best in contemporary playwriting, is so meaty and ballsy, you wouldn’t let anyone but the most accomplished of actors go near it. Violet Weston is the female version of a modern-day King Lear, a role so difficult and challenging, one can only sit back and applaud as Nevin nails it on the head in outstanding fashion.
Jane Menelaus convincingly plays Barbara, the eldest of Violet’s three daughters. This is definitely the strongest of the three daughter parts, and Menelaus’ performance as Barbara is impressive. You follow her every movement on stage, eagerly awaiting her next line. But highlighting individual performances in August Osage County is problematic, because this is very much an ensemble play and the Melbourne Theatre Company cast does not let us down. Thirteen fabulous roles are performed with consistent calibre, throughout.
Simon Phillips’ direction of this production is near-flawless. As the black comedy spews out the mouth of many of the characters in nearly all of the play’s nine scenes, it is perfect comic timing and fabulous character reactions on stage that make it all work so well. Letts has accurately observed how the modern family operates and anyone in the audience belonging to a large clan themselves, will have a riot of a time, coupled with more than a few squirmish moments of familiarity.
At the end of the day, August Osage County will almost certainly go down as one of the great American plays of the 21st century. It’s hard to see it as its coming, but this is an unforgettable play in so, so many ways. As in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, when the final act closes with George singing the title song to Martha, who replies “I am”, August Osage County’s exorcism leaves Violet destitute with only her live-in housekeeper, Johnna, as comfort. Violet, a fiercely independent woman, so strong throughout the entire play, now finds herself afraid of the big bad wolf, while Johnna lullabies to her “This is the way the world ends” in the play’s dying moments.
Just whom will we remember from this fabulous play? The role of Violet Weston, a loving mother with the poison of a viper at every turn, is the role you’ll never forget. Actresses will be lining up to play this role for decades to come. August Osage County is one mother of a play. Must see theatre.
(Note for younger audience members: adult themes and frequent coarse swearing)
August Osage County is playing at the Playhouse, Arts Centre until 27 June.
Edit: season extended until 4 July. Grab a ticket if you can!