Review: "August: Osage County" at Soulpepper Theatre

Photo:  Cylla Von Tiedemann

Photo:  Cylla Von Tiedemann

  • Dave Rabjohn, Associate Toronto Critic

Toronto, ON - Just as Toronto Raptors fans were tearing up Yonge Street on the way to the NBA final this weekend, Tracy Letts’ August:  Osage County was burning up the distillery district as it opens its run at Soulpepper Theatre.  The searing portrait of a Dysfunctional American family (and the capital D is purposeful) makes Macbeth look like just another episode of Full House.  The angst in this story is at the level of terrifying and the audience takes full advantage of slivers of comic relief which are well highlighted by director Jackie Maxwell and her team of worthy actors.  Tracy Letts is an actor himself and the son of an actor.  It is no surprise then that this is an actor’s play, full of mine fields, quicksand, and raging dialogue.  This team convincingly embraced the whirlwind, held on for dear life and delivered a memorable experience.

The steamy boiler plate of the Oklahoma plains in summer is the backdrop of the story of the Weston family.  Alcohol and drugs fuel the rage as Violet and Beverly wrestle with failures in their lives, both real and imagined.  The sudden disappearance of Beverly assembles the three sisters and various entourage, setting the stage for old wounds to be opened and for new wounds to be perpetrated.  The most serious conflict (and that is saying something) is between Violet and her daughter Barb who, as the two strongest personalities, battle throughout the story with intermittent moments of tenderness that are not sustainable.  Hidden family secrets are exposed, weaknesses are attacked, and broken relationships are ultimately crushed.  Loneliness is the final outcome for most of the Weston family.

Camellia Koo’s clever set design is not rich or flamboyant.  The centrepiece is the staircases that travel up and down almost to oblivion.  Balustrades let the audience peer into the inner reaches of the house and the lack of walls suggest exposure.  The turntable mechanics moving the staircases around allow the director different landscapes with which to work.  In some stark moments, the staircases pause in awkward positions with the stair landings literally going nowhere into space.  This is a perfect palette for the emptiness to come.  Equally remarkable is the growing black mold at the base of the many posts; the same mold clings to the ceiling.  The festering blackness comes at the family from all directions.

The strength of the acting comes from the two protagonists Violet and her daughter Barbara played by Nancy Palk and Maev Beaty.  Both demonstrate their versatility as they rage into near madness or plunge into the more quiet depths of despair.  It is pointed that the two most acute moments of pain come when each of them collapses at the same place in the middle of the staircase – in limbo, neither up or down.  Nancy Palk as the drug addled cancer victim especially defies the usual nuance of subtle drunken behaviour.  With amazing physicality, she throws herself about the set or launches into spasms of grief.  Ms. Beaty also demonstrates unique physicality in the second act fight scene.

Michelle Montieth plays the soft-spoken retiring youngest daughter Ivy who has never married.  She skillfully builds her character as the play moves forward from the shy introvert to the strong resilient fighter that she always had within her.  She seems to gain her strength from observing the turbulence – she, too, becomes wounded but in the end she is one of the survivors.  Samantha Brown plays Johnna Monveta, a Cheyenne woman who is hired as a housekeeper.  She, much like Ivy, is an outsider and an observer.  Even with very few lines she is a constant force as she hovers in the background or from the top of a staircase almost like a quiet conscience.  Her purposeful walk and closed body position belie her quiet involvement which sometimes breaks out at moments of crisis.

The veteran Diego Matamoros plays the opening turn as the gifted poet and professor who is flawed and now an alcoholic.  His splendid opening speech sets the tone for the morass that is to come.  Laurie Paton, as the sister Mattie Fae, plays a bellicose demanding wife and mother, loud voice and wild gestures. She effectively plays one of the haunted especially when she is often clinging to the hallway posts like a life raft. 

Deanna H. Choi delivers a unique sound design which clearly both comes from the chaos and adds to it.  Discordant strings amplify the various moments of eruption.  A scratchy Eric Clapton vinyl and an effort at the piano by the son Little Charles are quickly drown out by the overwhelming manic strings signifying the loss of even any small comfort in the lives of the Weston’s.

Although this observer finds a lack of substance in the story – poverty leads to alcohol and drug abuse which leads to being wretched to each other – the power here is in the acting.  As Violet dismally claims, “Thank God we can’t tell the future – we’d never get out of bed.”  Get out of bed and see this production and celebrate a hugely talented cast.

August:  Osage County  by Tracy Letts – Soulpepper Theatre – Toronto

Cast featuring:  Maev Beaty, Samantha Brown, Diego Matamoros, Nancy Palk

Production staff:  Jackie Maxwell – Director

Camellia Koo – Set Designer

Deanna H. Choi – Composer and sound designer

Runs at Soulpepper Theatre, Toronto through to June 15, 2019.

Tickets online at soulpepper.ca