August: Osage County

Posted on: 08 December 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

The dark side of the mid-western American family is unflinchingly and uproariously exposed by Tracy Letts in his Tony Award-winning play August: Osage County.

The dark side of the mid-western American family is unflinchingly and uproariously exposed by Tracy Letts in his Tony Award-winning play August: Osage County which the renowned Chicago-based company Steppenwolf has brought to London’s National Theatre.

When the large Weston family unexpectedly reunites in Oklahoma after their father, Beverly, an elderly academic, poet and long term alcoholic mysteriously disappears and is later found drowned, their home explodes in a maelstrom of repressed truths and unsettling secrets involving infidelity, drug abuse and incest. 

The matriarch of this dysfunctional family, Violet, her bitter tongue part of a mouth affected by cancer, has become hopelessly dependent on pills but this does not diminish her mordant wit, while her three daughters have long since succumbed to marital disappointment. 

The eldest, Barbara, comes accompanied by Bill, her almost separated professor husband, in love with one of his pupils, and with them is their offspring Jean who secretly smokes pot. 

The middle daughter, Ivy, is smitten with a distant cousin, while the youngest, Karen, has a fiancé whose prospects are dashed when he is caught trying to have sex with the under-age Jean.

As the family starts imploding, Letts questions the value of blood ties with meticulous scrutiny and we are left in no doubt at the end that it is only the family’s Indian servant who one can turn to in times of trouble.

This acid comedy slowly dissects not just a family but apparently a country.  The different generations have sought love, direction and purpose, seemingly losing all three - Letts in fact sees this as a microcosm of America.

Yet although the play always threatens to topple over into melodrama, Letts prevents it going over the top by skilfully blending comedy, drama and pathos into a persuasive whole, aided by an atmospheric three-storey set. 

However at 3½ hours I feel the production is about 15 minutes too long and would have benefitted from tighter editing.

Director Anna D Shapiro elicits a host of excellent performances, notably Deanna Dunagan as the steely, tottering Violet, Amy Morton as Barbara who, in trying to hold things together, threatens to become as tyrannical as her mother, and Rondi Reed - a dead ringer for Shelley Winters - as Violet’s brassy sister Mattie Fay, while not forgetting Sally Murphy and Mariann Mayberry as Ivy and Karen respectively, and Molly Ranson as Barbara’s teenage daughter Jean. 

These performances particularly shine in the best scene in the play - the post funeral dinner - first smouldering and then blasting with acrimony and vicious home truths as recriminations and revelations come to the surface.

In all then a fascinating look at how the American dream became a living nightmare!

By Laurence Green

Plays in repertory until 21st January.

Booking Information

Box office: 0207 452 3000 or venue website:

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