Stage Door Review 2019

August: Osage County

Jun 2, 2019

✭✭✭✭

by Tracy Letts, directed by Jackie Maxwell

Soulpepper Theatre Company, Young Centre, Toronto

May 24-June 30, 2019

Barbara: “Thank God we can't tell the future, we'd never get out of bed”

Soulpepper has pulled out all the stops for a thrilling revival of Tracy Letts’s August: Osage Country with an all-star cast. The last professional production Toronto saw was a touring production in 2009 starring an 81-year-old Estelle Parsons as the 65-year-old Violet Weston. Marvellous as Parsons and that production were, it is time to see this masterpiece of American drama again particularly because the past ten years have cast it in a new light. In 2009 Letts’s play seemed to function as a kind of warning to the nation in its portrayal of an extended family that had lost its way and even its reason for being. In 2019 the play seems much more like an elegy for a nation that has irrevocably plunged itself into darkness.

The play begins with a prologue in which Beverly Weston (Diego Matamoros) interviews and hires Johnna (Samantha Brown), a young Cheyenne woman, to be a combination of cook, maid and caregiver for his wife Violet. Beverly, a former academic and present alcoholic, wrote one highly acclaimed book of poetry in the 1960s and has never written a word since. Violet does not know he is planning to hire anyone. She has had a recurrence of cancer of the mouth and rather than seeking treatment, doses herself with a mix of a dozen different prescription pain relievers, muscle relaxants and anti-anxiety drugs.

When Act 1 begins, it is August and Beverly has been missing for three days and Violet (Nancy Palk) has finally reported his disappearance to the police. Feeling unable to cope with the crisis on her own and unhappy that an “Indian” woman she doesn’t know is living in the house, Violent put out calls to assemble the whole family at the huge family home near Pawhuska, Oklahoma, the county seat of the Osage County of the title which is coextensive with the Osage Nation Reservation. Thus, even though the Weston house is literally on Native American land, Violet treats Johnna as an alien. 

First to arrive is Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Laurie Paton) and her husband Charlie (Oliver Dennis). Ivy (Michelle Monteith), Violet’s youngest daughter, is already there. Barbara (Maev Beaty), Violet’s oldest daughter, arrives from Boulder, Colorado, with her husband Bill (Kevin Hanchard) and their 14-year-old daughter Jean (Leah Doz). Not arriving until Act 2 from Florida is Violet’s second daughter Karen (Raquel Duffy), who brings along her fiancé Steve (Ari Cohen). 

The nominal overarching story concerns the wait of the family to find out what has happened to Beverly and, when the Sheriff Gilbeau (Jeff Meadows) conforms his death, to hold his funeral and have a funeral dinner. The more important outcome precipitated by these events is Violet’s hideous behaviour to everyone exacerbated by her drug addiction. Ivy, who has lived longer with Violet than the other sisters, doesn’t care what happens to Violet and simply wants to escape. Karen, who is completely preoccupied with herself, also doesn’t care. This leaves Barbara as the only one who actually wants to do something about the situation. After a disastrous funeral dinner where Violet lashes out at everyone in the guise of “truth-telling”, Barbara has the family search for and destroy all of Violet’s pills and plans for her to dry out. 

Meanwhile, noxious as the Weston seniors’ marriage may have been, Letts reveals through intricately interwoven subplots that none of Violet’s relations are living happy lives. Laurie Paton shows that Mattie Fae is simply a milder, non-drug-addicted version of Violet, who spouts insults and prejudice with little care for their effect. Oliver Dennis depicts Charlie, her long-suffering husband as a good, decent man, though even he has a breaking point. Mattie Fae’s constant source of ridicule, whether in his presence or absence, is her son “Little” Charles (Gregory Prest), whom she finds hopelessly weak and inept. When we finally meet the jobless, 37-year-old “Little” Charles we find he is indeed weak and inept, but we wonder how much his mother’s unrelenting criticism has caused him to be the way he is. When, finally, Mattie Fae goes too far in disparaging “Little” Charles, Dennis’s Charlie erupts with a passion we had barely sensed simmering below the surface and gloriously tells her off.

As for Ivy, we find that Violet treats her youngest daughter in very much the same way that Mattie Fae treats “Little” Charles. Michelle Monteith demonstrates that because Ivy has lived in closer proximity to Violet that her other sisters and thus has longer experienced Violet’s insults and deceits, Ivy has developed the darkest world view of any of the characters. She sees obligation to family as totally meaningless: “I can't perpetuate these myths of family or sisterhood anymore. We're just people, some of us accidentally connected by genetics, a random selection of cells”. As she has done many times before, Monteith is expert at portraying a character who may appear outwardly fragile but is possessed of a strength and clarity of vision beyond anyone around her.

Ivy’s older sister Karen seems present primarily as a comic variation on the play’s general theme of self-delusion. Raquel Duffy hilariously delivers Karen’s long speech that opens Act 2 about how sure Karen is that she is finally happy. Duffy is a delight in showing that one reason that Karen may be so happy is not that she has found the perfect man but that she is completely superficial and self-obsessed. This view of Karen is confirmed when we eventually meet her fiancé Steve, whom Ari Cohen plays to slimily slick perfection. Cohen demonstrates that Steve’s well-practiced seduction of young women is based on the notion that just the right words and moves can banish any issues of consent.

Barbara, Violet’s eldest daughter and chief opponent, is not faring any better in her private life. She and her husband Bill have come to Oklahoma together to give the illusion of unity but have actually separated because Bill is having an affair with one of his students. Her parents’ behaviour only gives their daughter Jean more cause to reject them. 

More than Anna D. Shapiro’s 2009 production, Jackie Maxwell’s Soulpepper production emphasizes how in Barbara we are seeing another Violet in the making. Her gradual turning to alcohol for solace, her sudden assertion of authority over the family and her increasing coldness toward her daughter as an outlet for her anger against her husband, are all signs that point to a parallel with Violet. Beaty plays Barbara with masterful control of all her character’s changing dynamics. We begin the play in sympathy with Barbara and her task of coping with a mother like Violet and with her apparent rejection by her husband. But over the course of the action, Beaty subtly shows how Barbara’s attitudes harden not merely toward Violet but toward everyone else. 

We ought to feel quite negative toward Kevin Hanchard’s Bill, but unlike Ari Cohen’s Steve, who is also attracted to underaged girls, Hanchard makes Bill’s failing appear as much a mystery to himself as it is to Barbara rather than Cohen’s suggestion that Steve’s coming on to girls is an old predatory habit. Leah Doz brings out the unhappiness beneath Jean’s outward show of disdain so that we feel that the pattern of a mother’s mistreatment of her daughter that helps make Violet the hate-filled woman she is has been passed on to Barbara and may pass on to Jean.

Nancy Palk has given innumerable fine performances, but with Violet she pushes herself into a realm we have never seen before. Palk increases the harshness in her voice and turns Violet’s laughter into shrieks and cackles. Palk shows that Violet is filled with malicious glee any time she can ruin anyone else’s pleasure, but simultaneously Palk also lets us see how desperately needy Violet is of the very sympathy her behaviour pushes away. Palk also lets us sense that drugs, pain and fear of death all contribute to making Violet a horror to herself and others.

Diego Matamoros gives Beverly the wry, ironic wisdom of a man whose intelligence has only made him see life as he and his family live it as a sham well worth being rid of. For her part Samantha Brown may appear outwardly docile and compliant as Johnna but Brown’s expression always suggests that her calmness before the family is achieved only with great self-control. Letts has Johnna represent a way of life that the settlers pushed out of existence, but Letts’s play demonstrates that the dream those settlers may once have had was fraudulent and selfish from the first. Now while Johnna wears her own umbilical cord in a pouch around her neck as tradition dictates, the Westons’ hatred, greed and self-pity have destroyed every possible bond, including family, that could hold them together.

Jackie Maxwell, who has previously shown uncanny expertise in directing difficult large-scale family dramas like Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in 2016 and Lilian Groag’s The Magic Fire in 2006, shows an unerring sense of pacing and draws such nuanced performances from the entire cast that one viewing is not enough to appreciate the subtleties of the piece. She has located the action on Camellia Koo’s attractive circular set that features, as far as I can recall, a revolve for the first time in a Soulpepper show. This Maxwell uses to change from a complex set for the Weston’s living room on one side to a detailed set for their dining room on the other. Metaphorically, the revolve is a perfect image for a family who, as long as they are in the family home, keep going in circles as they deepen the ruts of the same old family arguments. Koo’s set features a bridge over the main playing area that connects two sets of curved staircases as if the Weston house were already split in two and needed some link to hold it together.

“Family-gathers-secrets-come-out” is an overused structure in American drama, but in August: Osage County Letts has taken that structure to it very limits and allowed what for most of its three plus hours in length is a very black comedy to evolve naturally into tragedy. Unlike so many family gathering plays, there is not merely one key secret that has to emerge, but multitudes not just from the family matriarch but from her children and sister and their partners. Using the family as a microcosm of the nation, Letts suggests not merely that the great American experiment has failed but that it has left everyone involved in it bereft of any moral or ethical compass. 

What seemed like a terrible prophecy in 2007 when the play first appeared now seems like a terrible prophesy fulfilled in 2019 where moral bankruptcy has become the order of the day. See August: Osage County not only for its panoply of extraordinary performances but for its prescient exploration of the malaise that afflicts us all today.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Ensemble of August: Osage County; Jeff Meadows as Sheriff Gilbeau and Nancy Palk as Violet; Michaelle Monteith as Ivy, Raquel Duffy as Karen and Maev Beaty as Barbara; Maev Beaty as Barbara and Nancy Palk as Violet. © 2019 Cylla von Tiedemann.

For tickets, visit soulpepper.ca.