REVIEW: August: Osage County National Theatre South Bank

PUBLISHED: 12:18 11 December 2008 | UPDATED: 15:41 07 September 2010

Five star rating In rural Oklahoma a man goes missing from his family home leaving his pill-popping wife, Violet (Deanna Dunagan) to face her mouth cancer, addiction and demons alone, save for the Native American housekeeper he mysteriously hires just be

Five star rating

In rural Oklahoma a man goes missing from his family home leaving his pill-popping wife, Violet (Deanna Dunagan) to face her mouth cancer, addiction and demons alone, save for the Native American housekeeper he mysteriously hires just before his departure.

Violet's delay in raising the alarm is the first of many mis-communications between the Weston family members.

The set - a wholesome, clapboard Waltons-style pile - belies the simmering disregard and contempt the Westons have for one another. As Violet's sister and her three middle-aged daughters return to the family home with dutiful intentions (and their significant others) in tow, the gathering and subsequent wake quickly degenerate into a brawling free-for-all where snide comments are sniped like machine gun fire and home truths ferociously spat.

The characters' underlying longing for some sense of family and their resentment that their blood bonds are devoid of any positive emotion are palpable.

Tracy Letts' tragi-comedy is a treat of slick writing and, as each Weston blames another for what their lives could have been, Letts' razor-sharp lines are charged with an irony and humour from which only the audience are sufficiently removed to appreciate.

As they purge themselves of their secrets, Letts' characters leave the family home even more miserable than when they arrived. With revelations of divorce, the attempted seduction of a minor, adultery, illegitimacy and incest, it becomes apparent that living with the truth turns out to be just as painful as living the lie.

The chemistry and dynamics between the cast members of the Steppenwolf theatre company, who hail from Chicago, are testament to the talents of their director Anna D Shapiro. She adds an intensity and raw energy to the text that carry the play at a pace through its three and a half hours - an epic by today's standards.

The fact that the housekeeper, Johnna (Kimberly Guerrero) is not only more virtuous than the entire Weston clan put together, but also bakes the best apple pie, may be seen as comment on the failings of the nuclear family or of the non-realisation of the American dream. However, ultimately this is a relationship play.

Watching August: Osage County in the festive season may bring your worst family-gathering nightmares to the surface, but that in part is what makes this Pulitzer and Tony award-winning play so darkly entertaining.

Until January 21.

Jo Cooke


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