Talk about a tall order.
And Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County is big in every way: big reputation (“the first great American play of the 21st century”, Pulitzer Prize to boot); big cast (13 roles, the least being merely substantial), big emotions on display, and an epic run-time of three hours.
And it’s no small thing to put on a play last seen when Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company brought its scintillating original production to Sydney in 2010, a staging still talked about in awed tones to this day.
The setting for Letts’ family showdown is a rambling yet stiflingly hot country house in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, home to long dormant poet Beverly Weston and his mouth cancer-afflicted wife Violet, who is off her head on a cocktail of pain medication most of the time.
“My wife takes pills and I drink,” Beverly informs the new home help in the opening scene. “That’s the bargain we’ve struck.”
We don’t see or hear from him again.
Beverley’s vanishing brings about a family reunion of Violet’s three middle-aged daughters Barbara, Karen and Ivy (with their significant others), and sister Mattie Fae and husband Charlie. All find themselves pulled into a maelstrom of recrimination and no-holds-barred truth-telling with Violet at its centre.
Director Louise Fischer has cast the play very solidly, leading with Helen Stuart, who is very much on-song as Barbara, a smart, angry woman in the throes of separation from academic husband Bill (Adrian Adam) at the same time she’s entering menopause.
Alice Livingstone’s portrayal of Violet has more pathos in it than Steppenwolf’s Deanna Dunagan’s portrayal but it’s effective and she grows in confidence and spitefulness leading into the play’s rip-roaring dinner table scene.
Emily Weare is appealingly vulgar as Mattie Fae, life and soul of the party. Sonya Kerr (the serious singleton Ivy) and Amy Scott-Smith (the bubbly, somewhat desperate Karen) are a few years too young for their roles, perhaps, but play them very well.
Kirra Farquharson is ideally cast as Jean, Barbara’s surly teenaged daughter and Emilia Stubbs Grigoriou is gently radiant as Johnna, the Cheyenne woman hired by Beverly to cook and clean.
Among the play’s men folk, Jake Fryer-Hornsby shines as Little Charles, Mattie Fae’s feckless son. Peter Flett lands some good moments as Charlie, Mattie Fae’s long-suffering husband.
Brett Heath has a fine first scene as Sheriff Deon Gilbeau, bearer of bad news and Lynden Jones is suitably unappealing as Steve, Karen’s slimeball fiancé. Playing Beverly means you only have to perform for the first 10 minutes of the show yet James Bean’s performance sticks in the memory throughout.
The Steppenwolf production was played on a huge doll’s house affair with three levels. This production, designed by Sallyanne Facer, breaks the Weston home into islands of furniture and low rostra, and looks haphazard. Someone should quietly remove those dangling window frames (and cover the LEDs in the lighting rig).
Opening night wasn’t as emotionally pin-sharp as it needs to be and the production’s final moment denies us a powerful lasting image of Violet’s predicament, but overall, this production is entirely rewarding, and, if you haven’t seen August: Osage County before, satisfyingly full of twists and turns.