Friday, December 05, 2008

August rising

August: Osage County, Tracy Letts' new play at the National Theatre, grew on me as it progressed, and it had nothing to do with the interval champagne. Indeed, sitting in the stalls watching a play about the addictions (pills, the sauce, drama) made me think twice (but not more) about taking another sip.

August is more of a blender-drink play than a champagne, for that matter: if you threw Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee into a liquidiser and hit 'squish', you'd end up with August. There are some fairly obvious references to the greatest hits of twentieth century American drama - a poker game, a warring intellectual couple.

This is not wholly to denigrate the play, although it is far from perfect: each line can almost be predicted from the one before, and the ending is far too explicit - the audience, credited with intelligence, could easily supply it for themselves, maintaining the tension.

Set in a family home in Oklahoma largely deserted by the family, Violet and Beverly Weston (Deanna Dunagan and Chelcie Ross [he is in fact a man, despite real and fictional Christian names]) tear strips out of one another, until Beverly disappears. Sharp-tongued Violet, who is dying from (what else?) cancer of the mouth, was built to fill the phrase 'pill-popping shrew' and has apparently driven her husband away with her pilled-up rages and bemusements.

By stages their dysfunctional dependents arrive: the dutiful daughter (Sally Murphy), the runaway daughter (Amy Morton), the sister taken straight from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Rondi Reed), and so forth. Secrets are revealed - a standard litany of unmentionable sins - and a family dynamic becomes a family diabolic.

This would all be ordinary except for a blistering set of central performances. Deanna Dunagan is superb as the alternately vulnerably befuddled, viciously bitchy Violet; a lesser actress would not be able to carry off these mood swings with any degree of conviction. What is most pleasing is that despite the opportunity to take chunks out of the scenery, Dunagan resists, not camping up what could just be another sacred monster.

She receives strong support from her daughters, especially Amy Morton as Barbara who moves from peace-maker to warlord to caretaker. What worked best was the way in which Barbara was transfigured into the hated figures of her parents, the passage of time indicated by clever use of lighting (by Ann G Wrightson). Because this represented what Barbara most feared, her worn-down face hits hardest.

There have been, apparently, grand claims for the play to represent the downfall of the American empire, and indeed one character is involved with private contractors [i.e. mercenaries] in Iraq, but this is the only indication. If Letts wanted to make August stand for a moral, global harvesting season, the text could have touched more on these issues; otherwise, one could map any situation onto the Weston family.

It is not hard to see August entering the repertoire as a twenty-first century Grand Guignol, but without striking performances, it is hard to see what there will be to watch.

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