August: Osage County

Osage County will now be remembered for being home to the Pulitzer-Tony Award winning play, August: Osage County by Tracy Letts who won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for writing the script, and one of the five 2008 Tony Awards one for Best Play.
August: Osage County
For those of us who didn’t know Osage County until the current Melbourne Theatre production August: Osage County, it is Oklahoma’s largest state, and is home to around 45,000 locals of which the Osage Nation, the dominant tribe in the region are part of. It is said to be a vast plain that stretches endlessly across 700 square miles of Kansas prairie (yes think Wizard of Oz). It will also now be remembered for being home to the Pulitzer-Tony Award winning play, August: Osage County (Tracy Letts won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for writing the script, and of the five 2008 Tony Awards one was for Best Play.) And to round off this perfect 10 for critical success, it was announced November last year, that the Weinstein Company has now acquired the worldwide rights to produce and distribute the feature film adaptation of this hugely successful play (the film is currently in development, with playwright Tracy Letts also writing the film script). The play premiered in 2007 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre and debuted on Broadway in the same year. It opened at London’s National Theatre in November 2008, and here it is now in Melbourne courtesy of The Melbourne Theatre Company – June 2009. Tracy Letts is an American playwright and actor and the son of author Billie Letts, probably best remembered for her novel Where The Heart Is which was also made into a film (with Nathalie Portman, Ashley Judd and Stockard Channing), and become a contender for the top prize in Oprah’s Book Club. Letts’ mother is reported to have explained the difference in their work as: "I try to be upbeat and funny. Everybody in Tracy's stories gets naked or dead." Tracy Letts’ work is not unfamiliar in the rich literary and theatrical landscape that the great Americana tradition has been built on. It focuses on a strong familial-based narrative woven around the fabric of social routine and all the significant cultural cues in these relationships. Letts is said to find inspiration from the works of Tennessee Williams and the novels of William Faulkner and Jim Thompson, and you can see elements of this in the play August: Osage County, particularly Williams. The story centre’s around the Weston family and their reunion due to a family drama. The play methodically clears a path, by where the audience can view each character from dark comedic angles to classic melodrama. With such an impressive list of accolades to its credit in the short time since it premiered at Steppenwolf in 2007, there is clearly much expected from any theatre company that decides to take this work on. The Melbourne Theatre Company’s production has Robyn Nevin in the role of the family matriarch Violet Westin and Jane Menelaus as one of her daughters Barbara. Heidi Arena and Rebekah Stone play the other two long-suffering children of a capricious pill-popping Violet. They are the core of this dysfunctional family and with them they bring troubled spouses, disillusioned children, erratic fiancés and uneasy friends. This reunion opens up all the necessary cans of worms and flashes of uncomfortable insight that makes these sorts of family tragedies both astute and familiar, making it even more vital for the actors involved to perform spectacularly. And indeed they did. There is such a calibre of talent in this MTC team that the only real disappointment is that they were not performing an Australian work. Direction by Simon Phillips is tight, the American accents are controlled and contained (it would have been so easy to lapse into cliché here). Niven and Menelaus in particular are in their zone. Niven because her role really calls for it, and Menelaus more impressively, because she is able to deftly tell this not particularly likeable character’s flawed story with confidence. The set too by Dale Ferguson is intelligently thought out, as the audience is expected to closely witness various scenes played out privately throughout the rooms in the house. The play is over three hours long – with two intervals, and so you should be prepared to invest time and attention to this most impressive work that’s strength lies in its detail. It is also great to be able to witness such a consistently high level of craftsmanship by the Melbourne cast of August: Osage County. Playhouse 23 May - 27 June Running Time: 3 hours 40 minutes including two 15-minute intervals Performance Schedule: Monday and Tuesday: 6.30pm Wednesday: 1pm and 8pm Thursday and Friday: 8pm Saturday: 2pm and 8pm

Rita Dimasi

Thursday 4 June, 2009

About the author

Rita Dimasi is an Arts Hub reviewer.