Thursday, 28 May 2009

August: Osage County, May 28, 2009 ***1/2

August: Osage County 
by Tracy Letts, Melbourne Theatre Company
Playhouse, Arts Centre, until June 27
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on May 28, 2009

Tracy Letts’ award-winning American play, August: Osage County, is what could be described as a comedy with tragic undertones. To quote the English comedy playwright, Alan Ayckbourn, “The darker the subject, the more light you must try to shed on the matter.”

There is plenty of scathing humour in Letts’ play about a bickering, dysfunctional family as they return like homing pigeons to the family home in the barren, hot and soulless Midwestern town of Osage County, Oklahoma. At times, the uproarious laughter Letts’ cunning dialogue elicits undercuts the tragedy, interrupting the dramatic tension he so painstakingly builds.

For this reason, the play cannot compete with the great family dramas of American theatre that include Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Miller’s Death of a Salesman or O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Letts’ play has less universal resonance or consistent tragedy. It is more focussed on its entertainment factor – and it is very entertaining for three and a half hours.

This play, with a huge cast of thirteen, is set during a stinking, hot August in the un-airconditioned home of the Westons. The alcoholic poet, Beverly Weston, played with dignity and restrained humour by George Whaley, is the patriarch of the Weston tribe.

The inimitable Robyn Nevin is deliciously wicked as his pill-popping wife, Violet, who is drug-addled from morning to night. Nevin one moment totters around like a dazed child in pyjamas and, the next, snipes at her benighted daughters whom she holds hostage with brittle humour.

When Beverly disappears mysteriously, the three middle-aged daughters arrive en masse to prop up Violet. Long-suffering, divorced Ivy (Rebekah Stone) is the butt of Violet’s constant criticism. Karen (Heidi Arena) is relentlessly cheerful and brings a dubious fiancĂ© (Sean Taylor). Barbara (Jane Menelaus), the sensible daughter, is in the throws of a secret separation from her smug, academic husband (Robert Menzies) and struggles with her rebellious daughter (Kellie Jones).

Violet’s blousey sister (Deidre Rubenstein), her tolerant husband (Roger Oakley) and hapless son (Michael Robinson) make up the rest of the clan. A silent Native American housekeeper (Tess Masters) lurks in the background.

The ensemble is consistently strong and compelling with particularly powerful performances from Nevin, Whaley and Menelaus. Simon Phillips’ production highlights the comedy of the script that he stages on Dale Ferguson’s vast, naturalistic set.

By Kate Herbert

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