First published in The Times, Saturday September 2 2017
In this era of 90-minute plays, a three-and-a-half hour drama feels like a real theatrical banquet. August: Osage County, Tracy Letts’s multi award-winning play, which made its Broadway debut in 2008, features all the bristling dialogue and steady ratcheting-up of tension found in great American stage works such as Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Yet, Letts’s family saga, with its large cast of dysfunctional characters, multiple plot strands, twists and revelations, is also unapologetically entertaining, like a soap opera only speeded-up.
To all intents and purposes, the play opens where O’Neill’s masterpiece leaves off: with a drug-addled matriarch stumbling around her own house. Unlike O’Neill’s Mary Tyrone, however, Letts’s Violet Weston (played in Andrew Panton’s production for Dundee Rep by Ann-Louise Ross) is brazen about her addiction to pills of all colours. Incoherent and rambling while under the influence, she veers between malevolence and self-pity when lucid.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
“My wife is cold-blooded and not just in the metaphorical sense,” says her husband, the gentle, alcoholic Beverly (John Buick), in the play’s opening monologue, wryly pointing out the poetic justice of this acid-tongued woman’s having recently completed a course of treatment for mouth cancer.
Beverly’s disappearance and the discovery of his body are the catalysts for a fraught family reunion, which brings the Westons’ three daughters and their associated spouses, children and hangers-on back into the fold. In a play that is, partially at least, a comment on the essentially solitary nature of existence, Panton and his cast do a fine job of navigating the play’s assortment of slow-burning ensemble scenes and more intimate sequences. Alex Lowde’s vast, revolving set – a house with the walls cut away – allows us to glimpse the characters in their private moments, divested of battle armour.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Set pieces, notably the horrendous funeral dinner that culminates in violence, are impressively choreographed. Yet, while much of this noisy family’s grief and rage simmers uncomfortably close to the surface (several characters cry “I’m in pain!” at points), some of the tensions Letts depicts, notably the way the Westons tiptoe around their composed Native American housekeeper, Johnna (Betty Valencia), are treated with wry understatement.
The play is unremittingly bleak. Even the more sympathetic members of the clan are cruelly denied happiness. Yet the script is so funny, so beautifully constructed and gripping that the play’s running time zips by. Ross is formidable as the head of the caustic household, pathetic one moment, hateful the next, and she receives brilliant support from the rest of the ensemble, notably Emily Winter, Beth Marshall and Angela Darcy as her three very differently messed-up daughters.