Soulpepper/August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts, directed by Jackie Maxwell, Baillie Theatre, Young Centre for the Performing Arts, May 18 to Jun. 23. Tickets available at soulpepper.ca.
August: Osage County (2007) by Tracy Letts is a big, sprawling, behemoth of a play that won both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The theme is one much beloved by American playwrights – a no-holds-barred, brutal portrait of a large, multi-generational, dysfunctional family that, while depicting an intimate domestic drama, also reflects the breakdown of the American Dream. The 13-member cast is one of the finest that Soulpepper has ever assembled, and with revered former Shaw Festival artistic director Jackie Maxwell at the helm, rich character portrayals are guaranteed. But, as absorbing as the production is, there are problems.
The setting is Osage County, Oklahoma, where “the Plains is a spiritual affliction like the Blues”. In the opening scene, and the only one in which he appears, we meet the renown, alcoholic poet and family patriarch Beverly Weston (Diego Matamoros), who is waxing lyrical about suicide. Sitting politely through this dark and boozy monologue is Johnna Monevata (Samantha Brown), a Cheyenne woman whom Beverly has hired as a housekeeper, and whose special duties are to look after his drug-addicted, vituperative, foul-mouth wife Violet (Nancy Palk). Johnna is the calm watcher and listener in this tempestuous household, and is always somewhere on stage. By making Johnna an indigenous woman, Letts is linking her sad history to the American Dream as well. By scene two, Beverly has disappeared without a trace, which brings his closest family members home to Osage, as a police search attempts to find him.
Beverly’s three troubled daughters, who have been raised by a troubled mother, each have their own set of problems. The tense and fierce Barbara (Maev Beaty) is separated from her more even-tempered husband Bill (Kevin Hanchard), who is having an affair with a student. Bill, and their fourteen-year-old daughter Jean (Leah Doz), have come home with Barbara to provide moral support. Barbara, it seems, has the most explosive and difficult relationship with her mother. Downtrodden, retiring middle daughter Ivy (Michelle Monteith), who has always been the butt of her mother’s cruel sarcasm, is secretly in love with her “screw-up” first cousin “Little” Charles Aiken (Gregory Prest). The flighty, narcissistic youngest Karen (Raquel Duffy) has brought along her sleazy businessman fiancé Steve (Ari Cohen). Also assembled are Violet’s opinionated and caustic sister Mattie Fae (Laurie Paton) and her sweet-natured husband Charlie (Oliver Dennis), the parents of “Little” Charles, whom Mattie Fae detests. Rounding out the cast is Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Jeff Meadows), who is leading the search for Beverly, and who was also Barbara’s high school boyfriend.
Thus, in the wake of Beverly’s suicide, the family forces are arrayed, and over three acts, the demons are let loose, and terrible secrets and lies are revealed. A curiosity in Letts’ writing is that we learn little about Beverly’s relationship with his daughters. Clearly, the formidable Violet has dominated the home with poisonous results. I’ve seen August: Osage County several times, and with each viewing, I find Letts’ ending disappointing and predictable, but the characters in conflict and their battles royal compensate for this weakness.
Director Maxwell has let her cast go for broke, and the action is a continual cannonade of exploding emotions. Raw passion rakes the stage with almost hysterical furor. As the August heat rages outside, the inside of the Weston house is a hotbed of trauma. A domestic drama escalates into an epic tragicomedy of Shakespearean proportions. That being said, many words and phrases are lost when the characters are in high dudgeon. As well, playwright Letts is a deft hand with one-line zingers, but often these laugh-out-loud sallies are obscured by mumbling. This lack of clarity should not be happening with such a quality cast. Palk and Beaty, who are shrill and growly respectively, are the worst offenders, but they also have the most soul-wrenching, emotive dialogue. In short, the character portraits are utterly compelling, but I wanted to hear every word. Oliver Dennis should be singled out for making the essentially weak Charlie hold his own with the others. He gives one of the best performances of his distinguished career.
There is also a problem with the set by the usually reliable designer Camellia Koo. The action requires both a lower and upper floor. Koo has provided a narrow catwalk that alludes to upstairs, with a main staircase at the front, and one at the back. What is needed is an extension of the Weston house into the wings, so when the actors are upstairs, they can walk offstage on that high bridge, and go down an offstage staircase. Rather, what we see is actors going down the back staircase, and then walking into the wings. In one scene, Barbara and Jean are getting ready to go out, and they have to go up the front staircase, run down the back stairs, grab their coats, then run up again to the catwalk, and then down the front stairs. While Koo’s revolving set does help flash cleanly between the living and dining rooms, the constant activity up and down the back stairs is a distraction. The Baillie is not a large theatre, and there may have been a difficulty with fitting in a house, but we needed an offstage staircase.
Letts has written rich, juicy roles that actors can sink their teeth into, and there is serious mojo acting chops on display. This production of August: Osage County is certainly entertaining, if on the noir side. I just hope that diction improves over the run.