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 The Theatreguide.London Review

August: Osage County
Lyttelton Theatre      Winter 2008-2009

Tracy Letts' very black comedy - or laugh-filled dark domestic melodrama is a guilty delight, the occasion to laugh frequently at characters who are suffering the deepest miseries.

It is also an opportunity to watch a high-quality and smoothly-operating acting ensemble at work, along with two of the most powerful starring roles of the year (and no, that's not a contradiction in terms).

And it's also an anthology of influences and echoes of virtually all the major American dramatists of the Twentieth Century. In the rare moments that your mind may wander from Letts' characters, you can note and collect the touches of Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill, Sam Shepard, Tennessee Williams, Lanford Wilson and even Neil Simon (perhaps not too surprising in a play by an actor who has probably performed in plays by all of them.)

August: Osage County is about the dynamics of a family reunion in a sleepy Oklahoma town. When the happily alcoholic father surprisingly kills himself, his three daughters (along with assorted others) gather to deal with their drug-addled mother, only to rediscover that the woman who has known them all their lives knows exactly what buttons to push to drive them crazy.

That is one of Letts' biggest insights - that family members, however loving, can't help knowing precisely the words that will cause the greatest pain to each other, and can't help using them.

(That, among other things, comes from O'Neill - making the zingers and general bitchiness incredibly inventive and witty inevitably evokes Albee's Virginia Woolf.)

So, as each new put-down or picking at an old emotional scab is matched by the revelation of a secret or betrayal that is a new source of anguish and new occasion for fighting back, this thoroughly diseased family on the edge of nowhere (hello, Sam Shepard), appals us about as frequently as it has us laughing out loud, and often at the same time.

This is a very funny play that is filled with home truths that are painful to be reminded of.

This production from Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theatre features almost the entire cast that won every award going on Broadway this year. Under Anna D. Shapiro's tight direction, there isn't a weak link among them and nary a moment that isn't charged with dramatic or comic energy.

And yet the tightness of the ensemble can't hide the fact that at the play's centre are two of the most expert and powerful performances London has seen this year.

Deanna Dunagan invests the mother-from-hell with all the charm and coolly calculated malice of a female Lucifer, while Amy Morton takes us through a complete range of emotions as the daughter trying hardest to keep things (including her own sanity) together.

But there are strong performances all around, so that picking out a few is difficult. Rondi Reed as a not-too-bright aunt makes what could be a stock comic character fully rounded and realised, and Sally Murphy is touching as a daughter trying her damnedest to escape.

Chelcie Ross makes a strong impression in his early scene as the soon-to-die father, Jeff Perry and Paul Vincent O'Connor play emotionally anchoring husbands, and everyone I haven't mentioned is just as good.

At three and a half-hours, the play is over-full, as each of the characters has his or her own gothic subplot, and I don't think too much would have been lost if Letts had resisted the impulse to throw in some of the secondary elements, perhaps the revelation of incest and the dirty old man.

And the one place in which the playwright's clear ambition does fall short is in expanding the play's resonance beyond the domestic. Unlike Sam Shepard, Letts can't really evoke a sense of place, or of the mythic power of the West, or of the family as metaphor for a decaying America.

But you don't miss those things. And don't let them make you miss August: Osage County.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of August: Osage County - National Theatre 2008

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