Set at the peak of summer within the unair-conditioned confines of Bev & Violet Weston’s dilapidated country home, Tracy Letts’ 2008 Pulitzer-winning play, August: Osage County tells the blistering story of family whose dysfunctional patriarch has just vanished, tearing a gaping hole in the lives of his wife and progeny. The privacy of the stage provides the viewer with an intimate insight into the trappings of domestic life, and illustrates just how dire the consequences of a spiritual cancer can be. Despite the promise of a lengthy and emotionally charged drama, Letts’ writing delivers plenty of dark humour and witty one-liners, adding a gross nuance to the kinship of his characters. Soulpepper’s production is compelling and credible, with a talented cast that deliver far better justice to the difficult script than the star studded cast of the 2013 film (Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, etc).
For the entirety of the play the audience is trapped in the Weston’s Oklahoma home, and the stifling August heat serves as a metaphor for the intense and suffocating experience the family endures as the middle aged children return home to cope with more mysteries than they anticipate. Camellia Koo’s set design is slick, stylish, and manages to strike an important balance of authentic detail with the minimalism required to highlight the action. August: Osage County confronts the human condition in the context of familial relationships using themes of intergenerational trauma, sibling rivalry, incest and adultery, as well as the exploration of our existence within space and time. The finite nature of beauty is frequently brought up by Violet (Nancy Park), a matriarch suffering from both mental and physical disease, who becomes a blazing catalyst for chaos and contention throughout the story. Maev Beaty plays Barbara, the eldest daughter, who has spent the last two decades in Colorado, distancing herself from the Plains and her family. Upon her return, we witness, under a microscope, as she crumbles, lamenting on her shifting identity within the domestic setting. Beaty packs a punch, portraying both strength and vulnerability through her power struggle with Violet, which ultimately carries the production to a tense and satisfying climax.
Soulpepper’s August: Osage County flows intuitively and the long running time never feels as though it drags, which is credit to Jackie Maxwell’s sharply paced direction. The large cast moves around the stage like clockwork, with admirable fluidity and true chemistry, extending to the audience strong reactions of empathy, hysterical laughter and scattered moments of stunned silence. Letts’ smart and powerful script is the real star of the show, but this production is a fine example of the power of quality theatre.