August: Osage County

Published November 27, 2008

After dominating this year’s Tony Awards, collecting five wins in the play categories, August: Osage County opened at the National Theatre with a weight of expectation adding to the oppression of a sultry summer in Oklahoma, not least because all of the award-winners are still with the company.

Actresses Deanna Dunagan and Rondi Reed, who won Best Actress and Best Featured Actress, still lead the company, which is directed by Best Director-winner Anna D Shapiro, as it tells Tracy Letts’s tale of a dissipated family brought back together in the wake of tragedy.

But this is no story of pulling together in the face of adversity, no snuggly heart-warming piece about the nature of humanity conquering difficulty. Letts’s dark comedy lays bare a family ill at ease with each other; all hiding relationship issues, all seeking solace from reality in one way or another, and all resentful of each other.

Dunagan’s mostly-stoned matriarch Violet, who lies at the centre of everything, totters and slurs, veering in and out of a coherence which brings with it a brash, truth-speaking, shoot-from-the-hip attitude that shows no care for the feelings of her family. She has always been a fighter and doesn’t mind throwing punches or taking a few either.

You get the feeling she has always dominated the family, all except her equally out-spoken, foghorn-voiced sibling Mattie Fay (Reed), and that Todd Rosenthal’s cross-sectioned doll’s house set has seen years of arguments and tension.

While Dunagan and Reed may have collected Tonys, August: Osage County is most definitely an ensemble piece, with each family member as twisted and damaged as the next, and though most families don’t have quite as many problems as those shared by the Westons, it is easy to recognise the simmering tension of the reunion situation.

Letts’s script moves from quoting TS Eliot – another author who saw the dramatic potential in families with secrets, as illustrated in his The Family Reunion which opened at the Donmar Warehouse earlier this week – to Tarantino-esque lines like the wonderfully blunt “Eat the fish, b**ch”, mixing the contemplative with the visceral in a way that both amuses and provokes.

As a picture of the American family, the Walton’s it ain’t.

MA