Soulpepper presents the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts in Toronto
I had invited a friend to join me for the opening night of the new production of August: Osage County by Soulpepper on Friday night but when I mentioned it was a three and a half-hour family drama with two intermissions he decided to pass. His loss; he missed out on an absolutely riveting evening of theatre.
Set in a small Oklahoma town during the scorching August of 2007, the play opens on Beverly Weston (Diego Matamoros)—an aging, washed-up, alcoholic poet—interviewing a Cheyenne woman named Johnna (Samantha Brown) for the job of live-in caretaker for himself and his wife Violet (Nancy Palk) who has become addicted to prescription narcotics after a recent bout with mouth cancer. When Beverly subsequently disappears, their children and extended family gather at the Westons’ home, setting the scene for the ensuing drama as long-standing tensions flare and family secrets are revealed.
The script is superbly written, each scene is packed with compelling character moments that gradually add to the web of intrigue that is this family’s existence. It’s not really a satire but it contains its fair share of dark humour—as soon as emotions heighten to a fever pitch, a character inevitably cuts through the tension with a precisely executed one-liner. It’s a bleak yet searingly funny and ultimately earnest portrayal of a family in crisis.
The characters are complex, none of them are particularly likable, at no point did I ever feel any sort of emotional attachment to any of them, but these people are so flawed and their family dynamic is so dysfunctional that their story becomes strangely irresistible—like watching a train wreck in slow motion, it’s captivating and you can’t look away.
It’s a long play but at no point did I ever feel like it started to drag nor did I ever find myself less than fully engaged which is a testament both to the superb writing as well as the stellar production and performances. August: Osage County features a large ensemble which plays to Soulpepper’s strength.
Nancy Palk is a standout as the family’s acerbic and overbearing matriarch. Though bitter and spiteful, Palk succeeds at maintaining Violet’s humanity in her carefully crafted portrayal. Palk never plays up Violet’s addiction to elicit laughs or sympathy for her character, and Violet wouldn’t want us to feel sorry for her anyway. Palk roots Violet’s nastiness in the character’s lifetime of resentment so it feels completely honest.
Maev Beatty is another standout as eldest daughter Barbara Fordham, a woman desperately trying to hold her life together as she deals with her missing father, drug addicted mother, cheating husband and increasingly distant daughter. When her slowly simmering character boils over it leads to some of the hardest-hitting moments in the play, especially when she goes toe-to-toe with Violet like in the scintillating Act 2 dinner scene.
- August: Osage County is playing through June 23, 2019 at the Young Centre for the Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, in the Distillery Historic District, Toronto.
- Tickets $38 – $102
- Tickets are available in person at the venue box office, by phone at 416-866-8666 or online at soulpepper.ca.
Photo of the August: Osage County Ensemble by Cylla von Tiedemann