Husband and wife, Beverly and Violet, are growing old. As Christopher Hart so eloquently put it, “they are growing old disgracefully.” Beverly is an alcoholic and Violet addicted to painkillers. Beverly’s not sure that either of them is at fault, he describes it rather as the “the bargain we have struck,” but when their three daughters (along with partners and children) come home in the aftermath of tragedy, the family history and secrets are gradually revealed. Amid lying, the fighting and all the hurt, one notion becomes apparent above all others: people will make poor choices and there will always be a need to lay blame, but often, that which has a more powerful stronghold on an individual is not their will, but the qualities they have inherited and the cyclical nature of their family.
Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County has it all: adultery, cancer, suicide, incest, drugs, plate throwing and mystery. The story is ever so tragic but exceedingly funny. It is very long but always gripping. It premiered in Chicago in 2007 before going on to Broadway and in 2008 it earned Letts the coveted Pulitzer Prize. Melbourne Theatre Company, under the direction of Simon Phillips and Naomi Edwards, has brought this story to the Australian stage and on opening night it provoked a rare and well-deserved standing ovation.
While the scenarios and themes explored in this work are universal, its setting has a great deal to do with the play’s overall feeling of isolation and oppression. Osage County lies partly in the Great Plains in Oklahoma. Hot, arid and smack bang in the middle of the United States it’s easy to see why the children of Beverly (George Whaley) and Violet (Robyn Nevin) have moved, or are about to move, to more habitable conditions interstate.
Beverly, a writer, likens himself to a “human cactus,” quite content to be without a great deal of attention. He is intelligent and relatively in touch with the world that exists outside of their immediate community but Violet, with terminal cancer, is not only disengaged with the rest of the world but with any life outside of their own house. Her refusal to air-condition the house in the heat of Summer only contributes to the stifling nature of the family home, as does her insistence that the windows remain covered at all times. Unable to view anything outside of the house, let alone differentiate between night and day, Violet has created an environment that does nothing to appease her constant state of depression and delusion.
Beverly and Violet’s family, even the town Sheriff, come and go, but the audience is only ever privy to the goings on inside of the house. The front porch is as far as the eye is allowed. With great attention to detail Dale Ferguson has designed the life sized double story house, much like an open dolls house. From the stacks of old newspapers near the kitchen to the brightly patterned clothes that hang in Violet’s wardrobe, the house is full of reminders of the life that exists outside the house and the life that used to be.
It is with the arrival of the first outsider, Native American Johnna (Tess Masters), that the first window is uncovered and with it the first hope of glimpsing the world outside. Beverly has employed her to be housekeeper and chief carer for Violet and with no family of her own and needing money she is happy to do so. Despite the fact that the land in Osage County was farmed by Native Americans long before white settlement, the family’s knowledge of Native Americans is limited to what they’ve seen in the movies.
On hearing that Beverly has disappeared, the family come home. More windows are uncovered and with them many truths. Beverly and Violet’s three daughters Barbara, Ivy and Karen, have all been holding secrets from each other and their parents. Sisterly feelings of inadequacy and jealousy are obvious. Barbara (Jane Menelaus) the strongest of the daughters, arrives with her husband Bill (Robert Menzies) and their pot-smoking teenaged daughter Jean (Kellie Jones) but it is soon revealed that Bill Bill has been “porking Pippy Long Stocking” (one of his students) and the couple are in fact separated. The buxom and self-absorbed Karen (Heidi Arena) arrives from Florida with her slimy fiancé Steve (Sean Taylor). Her airy-fairy confessions of finally being happy are somewhat undermined when Bill is is caught hitting on the fourteen year old Jean. Ivy (Rebekah Stone) is a shy, plain, librarian in her mid-forties who is still unmarried. There comes a time though when Jean can no longer hide that she is very much in love and the uncovering of the true identity of her lover will prove to be the greatest twist in her family’s story.
Also visiting to lend a hand is Violet’s overbearing sister Mattie Fae (Deidre Rubenstein), her amiable husband Charlie (Roger Oakley) and their son Little Charlie. Little Charlie is in fact a grown man who, as his nickname suggests, is belittled by the family. An intellectual disability is hinted at, although its never made clear whether his nervous and apparently simple demeanour stems from his family’s treatment of him or vice versa. It seems Charlie is the only one who really has time for Little Charlie, treating him with just the right amount of patience and understanding. In time, these two men reveal themselves to be perhaps the most genuine of the men in this family.
The brilliance of this play is due to the fact that everything just works. It must be said though that this is Nevin’s show. Her ability to express the nuances of slipping in and out of delirium is something to behold. She exudes bitterness while pulling off the wit that allows the audience to somehow grow quite fond of Violet.
As the end of the third act draws near it seems that the only daughter who is strong enough to stay with Violet is Barbara, but trapped within the family home, the similarities she shares with her mother become inescapable, and to save herself she too must leave. It is Johnna, the character who remains relatively inhuman in her perfection, who is left cradling Violet. Troublingly, it seems the one person who does not wish nor need to escape Violet and the family home is the one person who does not seem real. The idea that the audience is confronted with early on, that drowning is the only way to escape the claws of this family, is a rather depressing one, and yet it becomes more and more plausible as this play goes on.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY
by Tracy Letts
Director Simon Phillips
Venue: the Art Centre, Playhouse
Dates: 23 May to 27 June
Tickets: from $58.20 (Under 30s – $30)
Bookings: MTC Theatre Box Office 03 8688 0888 or mtc.com.au