Review: August: Osage County ~ theatre notes

Friday, June 05, 2009

Review: August: Osage County

The first thing to say about the MTC's production of August: Osage County is that it is a brilliant example of this kind of well-made theatre. You know, as soon as you walk into the Playhouse and see Dale Ferguson's triple-level set, that you're in for a big soap opera of a play. It's a house in almost cubist cross-section, the upper bedrooms perilously exposed like those pictures of bombed London houses in the second world war. Every naturalistic detail is there: the papered-over windows, the family snapshots on the sideboard by the dining table, the bookshelves, the old record player. It screams "multi-generational family drama".

And you get precisely what is written on the box. Tracy Letts' play, written for the Chicago company Steppenwolf, is a sprawling family tragi-comedy (some wags over in the US have called it "situation tragedy") which attempts to diagnose the pathologies of contemporary mid-west America, and here it's given a bravura production by Simon Phillips. August: Osage County comes to Australia on a wave of press adulation: a Pulitzer Prize winner, it’s been hailed as the best play to hit Broadway for a decade.


The play dances on the exposed nerves of the Weston family, who are in the midst of spectacular meltdown. Beverly (George Whaley) and his wife Violet (Robyn Nevin) observe what Beverly calls the “cruel covenant” of marriage. As he tells the hired Native American help Johnna (Tess Masters), “The facts are: my wife takes pills, and I drink”. When Beverly suddenly vanishes, their relatives descend on the house, partners and children in tow, setting the stage for a fraught process of revelation and damage. Family secrets rattle out of the closet and lives are destroyed with a flick of the tongue.

It’s an ambitious play in a grand American tradition, but Letts has incorporated other contemporary influences – notably television – into the mix. The odd thing is that the televisual influences are pretty dusty. Over the past few years, some of the most exciting television in the world has been made in the States - bold, formally imaginative and uncompromising stuff like Deadwood or The Wire - but Letts' play reflects an earlier era of traditional soap opera and situation comedy. This makes it comfortably familiar, but gives the writing a sepia tinge.

And the rapturous claims that August: Osage County is the new Great American Play make me wonder what has happened to the Great American Play. Letts references practically all of them - the drug-addled shamble of Violet Weston echoes the morphine-heavy steps of Mary Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night; the inter-generational savagery and destructiveness reflects Tennessee Williams, especially The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; the tragic inexorability of family secrets outing themselves into the next generation is like Miller's All My Sons. And so on. But when you put this play in the company of O'Neill et al, it shrinks to its proper size. It's a potboiler.

The play opens, via a rambling monologue from Beverly (a former poet and English professor) with some self-conscious literary referencing - John Berryman, a suicide, and TS Eliot. (Eliot's poem The Hollow Men is in fact the play's shaping metaphor). But this, like most of the first act, is basically naked exposition: the themes that are to follow are all carefully flagged, as if the text is designed to be written about by English students.

We are told that August: Osage County is about Bush’s America, the corrupted and shattered ideals of post-9/11 society. It's about "the greatest generation", struggling out of poverty into the middle classes, and their spoiled, confused and scarred children and grand children. It's about addiction and generational inheritance. It's about the mid-west. There's enough there for scads of comprehension essays, all laid out carefully like cutlery on a dinner table.

This is particularly clear in the weakest part: the Native American servant, Johnna, is the spiritual blessing and refuge of the house, just as Native American spirituality is the true authenticity of America, yada yada. This woman appears to have no character or motivation outside her heavy symbolism; she sits patiently in her attic room in a lotus position reading books and offering advice to various troubled family members, unless she is called upon to make dinner or lay the table or to hit a lecherous man on the head with a frying pan. Unlike everyone else, we never know why she is there (aside from needing a job) and why she puts up with this family. I guess it's her indigenous saintliness.

What happened, I wonder, to the poetic of subtext? Here it's all worn on the outside, perhaps out of fear that otherwise we'll miss it. Perhaps this accounts too for some of that clumsy plotting. And all the trauma this family undergoes is made palatable by the laughter: it's sometimes uncomfortable, true, as when you find yourself laughing at a drugged old woman gracelessly dancing to an old record. But the eviscerating emotional catharsis attained by the earlier dramatists doesn't exist here: it's soft focus tragedy that never actually pierces your heart with painful interior knowledge.

When you think of the explosive nuclear energy of Sam Shepard, whose play Buried Child was a celebrated Steppenwolf production in the 1990s, it's hard not to speculate that something has gone rotten in American drama. (Maybe it was always rotten, pace Peter Brook - Shepard never sat easily in the mainstream, after all...) While Shepard picked up the popular culture of his day - rock and roll, country and western, science fiction, Hollywood westerns, television, drugs - and used them to generate a new energy in the theatre, Letts is rather bringing these mass culture influences into play as pacifying devices, comforting recognitions that sweeten bitter truths.

The great strength of this play is, however, that it's written for actors. It's full of fabulous roles, and Phillips' cast, particularly the women, makes the most of their opportunities. It's dominated by a scorching performance by Robyn Nevin in the central role of Violet Weston, a drug-hazed wreck whose truth-telling has the compassion of an open razor. This is Nevin at her best, playing a complex, sardonic, damaged monster, unnervingly savage and vulnerable. Meeting her in savagery and depth is Jane Menelaus as Violet's daughter Barbara; these two play out the central conflict of the drama, as Barbara, reeling from a failed marriage, reverts to family patterns and finds that, of all the sisters, she is most like the mother she rejects.

Around them in an almost uniformly strong cast, performances notable for their passionate complexities include Deidre Rubenstein as Violet's blowsy sister Mattie Fae, Heidi Arena and Rebekah Stone as Barbara's two damaged sisters and Roger Oakley as Mattie Fae's put-upon husband. It's good to see Simon Phillips back in form: this is an intelligently orchestrated production. The flexible set permits swift scene changes, signalled by Matt Scott's lighting changes, so the play moves fluidly, with the minimum of distraction. It all, basically, works.

In short, it's a fine production of a play that doesn't live up to its hype. I can't help wishing it did: perhaps the reason that it's been so welcomed is that this scale of ambition and staging is relatively rare in contemporary theatre. It's still enjoyable, in that melodramatic soap opera way, and ought to be a popular hit for the MTC. And it's worth a visit for the performances alone. But in the end, it makes naturalistic drama look old fashioned. Maybe the clue to its future vitality really is in contemporary American television, but this play is looking in the wrong places.

Picture: Sean Taylor, Robert Menzies, Rebekah Stone, Robyn Nevin and Michael Robinson in August: Osage County.

August: Osage County by Tracy Letts, directed by Simon Phillips. Set and costumes by Dale ferguson, lighting design by Matt Scott, sound design by David Franzke. With George Whaley, Tess Masters, Robyn Nevin, Rebekah Stone, Deidre Rubenstein, Roger Oakley, Jane Menelaus, Robert Menzies, Kellie Jones, Tony Nikolakopoulos, Heidi Arena, Sean Taylor and Michael Robinson. Melbourne Theatre Company at the Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre, until June 27.

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

THANKYOU Alison. I saw this play on Broadway and I was underwhelmed by it alongside the American Family "genre" which I adore. I wondered if I was the only one who thought this way...... especially as I was met with raves from fellow theatre go-ers who had seen it..... ah, the theatre!

Beatrix Potter said...

Looking at the reader's comments in the New York Times, a lot more people seem to be underwhelmed by the play than its success would indicate. Nearly forty per cent of those writing in gave the play a thumbs down. I still plan to see it so I can make up my own mind, but the level of hostility to AOC surprised me.

Gilligan said...

Hi Alison,

Just saw the show and I have to say your review is excellent.

Yes it is somewhat of a soap-opera, yes it is trying to be a Great American Play, yes it is naturalism, yes it is MTC, but the truth is it's a very good production of a very good play.

Dale Ferguson's set is amazing, and it is worth going to see this production just for that. However, the real strength of this production is in the sharp writing and brave performances. I'm not a huge fan of naturalism in the theatre, but this play is undeniably good. The second act, set around the dinner table, is one of the most energised pieces of theatre I have seen.

I'm sure we will see some Green Room Award nominations out of this play. Simon Phillips direction is spot on, and the performances of Robin Nevin and Jane Menelaus are two of the best I have seen this year.

As you said Alison the play does have its faults, but for me this didn't slow down what is a very strong production.

There has been much debate on this forum and around Melbourne of late, on the role of naturalism in theatre. I think this production proves that there is still a large role for it to play in the theatre world, and it’s a strong response to those who say it is dead.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Gilligan and all - actually, I think something like David Harrower's Blackbird, which the MTC did so beautifully last year, is a much better example of how powerful and interesting naturalism/realism can be. This just shows (NYT comments notwithstanding!) that it still can be a popular form, and I'm not sure that's really news to anyone...

naive theatre goer said...

I was surprised by this comment: "We are told that August: Osage County is about Bush’s America, the corrupted and shattered ideals of post-9/11 society." Who is telling us this? I didn't buy a program, so maybe it is there. But I saw the play several days ago and it didn't occur to me that there was anything particularly "post-9/11" about the play. The theme of 'families with issues' is hardly new, in either American or nonAmerican (cf., eg., the recent productions of 'Leaves of Grass' by Red Stitch & 'Tom Fool' by Hoypolloy) theatre. Maybe I missed something or my memory of the play is faulty but if someone had told me that the play was written in 1998, I wouldn't have doubted the claim.

Alison Croggon said...

HI NTG - I guess that's one that might qualify as (sort of) subtext - it's in the generational speech, about the Greatest Generation. The Greatest Generation was one of the major referents in the rhetoric of Bush's America, especially in connection with making war on Iraq.

Justin Cash said...

This is a huge call, I know, but I honestly believe in 50 years time we will be looking back at August Osage County as one of the best plays of the 21st century.

Like a few others on here, I saw it on Broadway last year and again in Melbourne and for me, August deserves every single bit of the praise that has been heaped upon it in the past couple of years. It is a stunning play and the MTC cast is strong, so I just can’t understand why it has received some lukewarm reviews here in Melbourne?

I’ve taken senior high school students to the theatre for 20 years now and the other night at August, I have rarely seen teenagers so engaged and enthused about a stage play. Remember, this is the You Tube generation and the attraction of film and video far outweigh the benefits of live theatre to them. But I had students telling me August was better than the best movie they had seen in the past 12 months (a big call for a 17 year-old), while others since that show have gone out and bought their own tickets to see August a second time. All this from a play that was clearly aimed at a much older demographic…

By the way, congrats to Geoffrey Rush for winning the Tony Award for Best Performance By a Leading Actor in a Play this morning. Wow, he definitely was mesmerising back in ’07 in Exit The King, that’s for sure.

naive theatre goer said...

"HI NTG - I guess that's one that might qualify as (sort of) subtext - it's in the generational speech, about the Greatest Generation. The Greatest Generation was one of the major referents in the rhetoric of Bush's America, especially in connection with making war on Iraq."

I don't even remember anything about the Greatest Generation in connection with Bush rhetoric, I don't doubt your claim that it was there but it certainly didn't register with me (or with any of the 5 other people I've asked about it today). More generally, I guess a problem I have with regarding the post-9/11 stuff as "subtext" is that there are numerous people who see everything through post-9/11 spectacles and so they'll see it there as "subtext" no matter what. Interpreting stuff in post-9/11 terms gets a bit much sometimes. Fair enough for, e.g., a Jane Bodie play the MTC put on 2 or 3 years ago ("A Single Act"?), where there were explicit and obvious 9/11 references. But I think some people sometimes get carried away with this stuff, they're too much in the grip of their post-9/11 preconceptions/lenses.

naive theatre goer said...

One of those 5 people I mentioned in the previous post just directed me to the Wikipedia entry on The Greatest Generation:

"The Greatest Generation is a term coined by journalist Tom Brokaw [in his 1998 book "The Greatest Generation"] to describe the generation of Americans who grew up during the deprivation of the Great Depression, and then went on to fight in World War II, as well as those whose productivity within the war's home front made a decisive material contribution to the war effort. Some of those who survived the war then went on to build and rebuild United States industries in the years following the war."

There is no reference to Bush using the phrase. Brokaw of course was a longtime NBC newsreader, not a Republican politician, though of course that wouldn't stop Bush Republicans from using the phrase too.

Troubador said...

Dear NTG,

I don't know if Bush actually ever used the term, "Greatest Generation" but you might be interested in reading this article by Christopher Hayes called:

The Good War on Terror (How the Greatest Generation helped pave the road to Baghdad)

He writes:

"After 9/11 it seemed as if the entire country was ready to adopt the Greatest Generation values that Bush had so assiduously claimed as his own. We celebrated the manly heroism of the cops and firefighters who sacrificed their lives to save people. Editorials proclaimed the “death of irony” and a return to earnest patriotism."

The entire piece can be found here:

www.inthesetimes.com/article/2788/

Troubador said...

I should add that (and perhaps an American may be able to confirm this) that the term might evoke Bush and 9/11 in a way that doesn't translate to an Aussie audience.

naive theatre goer said...

Troubador, thanks for that reference.

I guess even if The Greatest Generation was sometimes connected to the Bush agendas, at least by some commentators if not by Bush himself, I suppose it is still an open question whether such a connection should be read into Letts' play. Brokaw's 1998 explanation of the phrase (as outlined in the Wikipedia) would fit quite nicely with the play, irrespective of any subsequent connection that some might have made with the Bush stuff. So I'm not sure why we should read Bush, rather than just 1998 Brokaw, into the "subtext" of the play.

John said...

Justin Cash you are right on the money I saw the show and not only loved it but also had a number of students in the audience and was thrilled to hear their excitement about the play and the actors . On leaving I overheard one teenage girl announce to her friend 'well Robyn Nevin is now my hero ' - there is the power of theatre - untramelled by the jaded comments of cynical (and often second rate) critics

Alison Croggon said...

Well, I'm far from cynical or jaded (and I hope I'm not second-rate). Nevin is brilliant, I agree. I wish I could agree the play was as brilliant as its performers.

Alison Croggon said...

...and hi NTG: it seems a very obvious reference to me, but I guess I followed the post 9/11 press (and mess) very closely indeed. Aside from that, the play is so very self consciously about contemporary America, and places itself very carefully in the present time - that reference to Clinton, for instance.

Jana said...

I find the discourse on generations very interesting. A few years ago, I wrote an article for an Eastern-European magazine about the Boom/X/Y generalizations, and my Polish editor sent it back a dozen times, each time arguing that no one really believes that crap. I thought it was a fine example of a cultural difference, and ended up incorporating it into the article.

But it seems that generations get stretched in strange ways. Can I ask: to have fought in WW2, an American person would need to have been born at least in 1927, which would make them 82 today. Is that how old the oldest characters are? Because otherwise we're talking about some other people, some other generation, aren't we?

Alison Croggon said...

...I forgot to add that the midwest was the symbolic stronghold of Republican support, Family Values, etc, and through the Bush era basically kept him in office. So the geographic placing of the play would have resonated to an American audience too.

Jana - in Osage County, the "Greatest Generation" refers to a generation who were were children during WW2, who struggled in poverty and then entered the middle classes. Bush kept talking about the US soldiers saving the world from Nazis (forgetting about the Russians and the English and the French, millions of whom died for the same reason, but never mind). This is, as you say, a different parsing of the phrase.

You're right, it is confusing. Like whether I am Generation X or a Babyboomer. Depending on who one reads, I can be either, though generally on the X side. Was your editor saying that nobody made these generalisations, or just that they weren't true?

Michael Magnusson said...

Isn't it exciting to hear from people like Justin Cash, who is passionate about Drama and Theatre and is in a position to (and does) inspire that same passion in the next generation.

John said...

Certainly did not include you amongst the jaded critics Alison - your commentary is always thoughtful and intelligent . And despite small differences of opinion on the quality of the text there seems to be an overwhelming consensus that this production and the lead performances superb. All the more bizarre then a rumour that STC is shunning this production and emptylng the piggy bank to fly American actors out to do it.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks John...and really? I wonder if that's true. Given the economic downturn and associated frugalities, it does seem a little, er, surprising. Though it would be interesting to see what Steppenwolf did with it, since it was written for that cast.

John said...

If true Mr Armani must have very deep pockets . As you say difficult to believe such a financial indulgence when theatre companies are struggling to break even. Let up hope its not the dreaded Cringe factor.

Jana said...

The inthesetimes article Troubador posted framed the Greatest Generation as the one that fought. You're right, confusing: being a child, fighting a war... two very different experiences in my mind.

My editor's point was, really, that no one believes in that crap. It encompassed a belief that generational generalization is not a valid way to look at societies, and a belief that this flaw is manifest enough not to convince anyone. But I would also add that Boom/X/Y mantra doesn't exist in the same way in Europe. It really doesn't. Whether because the historical developments have caused different types of generational clashes, or because there is a stronger sense of Society (less fragmentation along age lines), I wouldn't know.

In any case, while in the Australian mainstream press you regularly read articles comparing, for example, the attitude to work of a typical GenX and GenY member, in European press that would be perceived as bordering on caricature (comparable to comparing a straight and a gay woman's attitude to work, say).

Still, it's a useful shorthand, and our entire civilization is based on simplification...

neandellus said...

It's not only useful short hand, it's powerful poetics. The idea of generational decline, gold to bronze to iron, the epigone, gods begetting kings begetting heroes begetting slaves, is deeply rooted in the European imagination. The "Greatest-->Boomers-->X-->Y-->&c" appears to be only the latest expression of that.

I prefer to think AOC puts the timelessness of 'intergenerational savagery' way up front and keeps the Bush-era political commentary as bokeh because there's not really much definition to it.

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, it's kind of crappy. I keep reading about Gen Y and (more frequently now) Gen Z, and I keep thinking that these articles miss the point by a country mile. What I most often think of is an essay by Kenneth Rexroth, a fine American poet who was a generation older than those who were young in the 60s. He was one of the first to clock what was going on in the counter-culture: the newspapers were full of complaints that the current generation of youth were apathetic, apolitical, un-idealistic and materialistic. Sound familiar? I think something similar is happening now.

Neandellus, the myth of decline only applies if one is a Babyboomer. After all, it might be the other way around... All of us have had the experience of being patronised by a self-titled 68-er. Mind you, calling onself a member of the "Generation of 68" in Australia feels a little rich. It might mean something in Paris or Prague, but I've never heard people use that phrase there!

Anonymous said...

As a Sydneysider, can I suggest that perhaps the reason STC doesn't want to present MTC's production of AOC is that they are reluctant to put yet another piece directed by Phillips in front of their longsuffering audiences? After the fluff that was "Spelling Bee" and the rambling indulgence of his direction on "Rock'n'Roll", not to mention the underwhelming premise of the upcoming, Pearce-vehicle-without-Pearce "Poor Boy", a break with the Phillips-infused past is surely no bad thing? Quite apart from this, I for one would be thrilled if Steppenwolf came to Sydney - we missed out when they last came to Australia for the Melbourne Festival.

Alison Croggon said...

Like I said,it would be fascinating to see Steppenwolf. On the other hand, the admiration for Simon Phillips's production of AOC crosses all spectrums of opinion about the play, and it's best thing he has done for years. It's very fine indeed. It's a shame you're getting Poor Boy instead.

John said...

It would seem that even if STC didn't want to use the MTC production given the strength of the performances and the rave reviews and packed houses, they could mount their own using some of these actors. After all I believe Nevin is not unknown to Sydney audiences--perhaps more of a draw than the Chicago actress who first played the role? But then again if America is going to have to accept some Sydney actors they have never heard of as Stanley and Stella in "Streetcar," then I guess it's fair enough...as a mere academic the financial realities of commercial theatre elude me and no doubt it all makes sense to someone.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for an extremely insightful review, Allison. I felt this play steadily ran out of steam the longer it went on. Quite ironic (not to mention awful) having the Native American girl sing Eliot's closing lines from The Hollow Men, when if fact this play, in striving to maintain interest, ended with a bang, not a whimper. Yet this bang was simply the smashing of crockery. The emotional revelations completely lacked subtlety; endless histrionics is not a substitute for drama, just as farce is not comedy. Great set design and performances here. I think the problem, as you say Allison, is with the script. A couple of comments here have suggested this play was adored by school classes. Perhaps that's because it resembled soap opera, or even reality TV. I think I'm most disappointed because this play definitely had potential, but it just steadily fizzled away. The MTC would have to be the perfect sphere of theatre companies: no risk of an edge here.

Alison Croggon said...

You know, if it had resembled reality tv, it might have had a vulgar garish quality that lifted it out of the middle brow. I find it kind of depressing that this is equated with Eugene O'Neill.

Vikki said...

The rumour that Steppenwolf TC are flying to Sydney next year appears to have been confirmed in today's Age. I just find this bizarre -- I wonder if the original cast will feature?