Review: August: Osage County

By John Nathan, December 4, 2008

Lyttleton, National Theatre, London SE1

Sally Murphy (left) and Rondi Reed in the superb August:  Osage County

Sally Murphy (left) and Rondi Reed in the superb August: Osage County

Tracy Letts’s riveting family saga, written for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, has won a hatful of awards. And it is easy to see why. Letts is the latest chronicler of the American dysfunctional family. Where his drama fails to deliver the emotional punch of, say, O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, it compensates with pitch-dark humour.
The disappearance of the Westons’ alcoholic patriarch triggers a 10-strong family gathering spearheaded by his three lovelorn adult daughters. All have come to support their prescription pill-popping mother, Violet.

What follows has enough incident for a season of soap operas. Yet for all the affairs, addictions and betrayals, and despite the revelation of family secrets so excruciating to watch the National might consider handing out cushions for its audience to hide behind, Letts has steered his drama away from the sensationalist and triumphantly arrived at the sensational.

The action takes place over three acts, a whopping three-and-a-half hours, and in a huge three-storey house in Oklahoma. Despite its length, Anna D Shapiro’s production whizzes by with the help of superb ensemble performances. Outstanding are Deanna Dunagan’s fierce and fragile Violet, Rondi Reed as her tough sister, and Amy Morton as the eldest daughter who tries to break the cycle of insanity while dealing with her husband’s infidelity. Ignore the claims that the play serves as a mirror to Bush’s America. But as a portrait of a family in which dysfunction is handed down the generations like an heirloom, the play is something of a masterpiece.

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Last updated: 5:42pm, December 4 2008