August: Osage County | Steppenwolf Theatre

August: Osage County | Steppenwolf TheatreLeft - Molly Ranson, Rondi Reed and Paul Vincent O’Connor. Cover - The Cast. Photos - Grant Sparkes-Carroll

Family drama has been a theatrical staple from shakespearian times, through to A Streetcar Named Desire and classic Australian plays like Away. There’s something about the family dinner table that brings out your rawest and deepest emotions. Audiences have laughed, gasped and groaned in recognition muttering to their friends, “My mother-in-law is just like that”.

2008 Pulitzer Prize winner August: Osage Country provokes all these reactions in spades over three hours and fifteen minutes of high energy. It is a perfectly executed piece of domesticity. Scenic Designer Todd Rosenthal deserves special mention. Imagine a giant dolls house complete with study, kitchen, living room and bedroom.

When family patriarch, Beverly (Chelcie Ross), goes missing, the three daughters, Barbara (Amy Morton), Ivy (Sally Murphy) and Karen (Mariann Mayberry) along with their husbands and children descend upon the family home on the Osage County Plains. They will have to deal with Violet (Judi Farr), there abusive and drug addicted mother. Morton gives a particularly strong performance, as Barbara, the eldest daughter, who has the ultimate responsibility for looking after her mother. Throw in many insecurities and some good ole fashioned incest and you have a family about to explode or at least smash a few plates.

This the second play by writer Tracy Letts to hit the stage in Sydney in 2010. Bug was staged at Griffin in May. Letts adapted Bug into a film and is currently working on a film adaptation for August: Osage Country. He admits August: Osage Country is a partly autobiographical work. In fact when he showed this play to his mum, she said he had been far too kind on Grandma.

Pitty the poor soul who met Granny in real life, methinks. Violet is the villain of the piece, criticising younger generations for everything including lack of dress sense. Surprisingly, Letts says that writing the play gave him a deeper love and respect for his grandmother, and a better understanding of what the women of her generation went through.

The play is presented by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre company which was formed in the mid 70’s and is now regarded as one of America’s foremost ensemble theatre companies. Australia’s major theatre companies are often criticised for scheduling overseas plays with overseas actors. After all it is hard enough to get work and exposure as a theatre maker in Australia without big name foreigners literally stealing the spotlight. However it is good for audiences to be exposed top theatre from around the world and local theatre makers can learn something about their own craft from watching these productions.

The third act at times threatens to descend from realistic family drama into melodrama. The barrage of revelations about who fathered who’s child, and who’s been hiding what disease does go a bit overboard. The play does get back on track, though. The final scene is poignant, haunting and reminds us that family sagas rarely have happy endings.

Despite seeing no major technical faults in this play, I left feeling a bit indifferent. Is convincing real life family drama enough to make for a good night of theatre? I think theatre should take us to strange, imaginative and challenging places rather than just remaining rooted in reality. This is all a matter of personal taste, but, after all, personal taste is an essential part of theatre going.

Sydney Theatre Company presents
Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s
by Tracy Letts

Director Anna D. Shapiro

Venue: Sydney Theatre, 22 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay
Dates: 13 August - 25 September 2010
Tickets: $40 - $90
Bookings: (02) 9250 1777 |

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