The Chicago Steppenwolf production of Tracy Letts\' August: Osage County opened to critics at the NT Lyttelton last night (26 November 2008, previews from 21 November) with most original members of the multiple Tony-award winning production reprising their roles.
August: Osage County exposes the dark side of the middle American family. When the Westons unexpectedly reunite after dad disappears, their Oklahoman homestead explodes in a maelstrom of repressed truths and unsettling secrets, all overseen by the pill-popping and scathingly acidic matriarch Violet (Dunagan).
Original ensemble members accompanying the London transfer are: Deanna Dunagan, Rondi Reed (who both won individual Tonys for their performances on Broadway) Ian Barford, Kimberley Guerrero, Mariann Mayberry, Michael McGuire, Amy Morton, Sally Murphy, Jeff Perry, Molly Ranson and Troy West. They’re joined by fellow Americans and new company members Paul Vincent O’Connor and Chelcie Ross.
August: Osage County is directed by Anna D Shapiro and designed by Todd Rosenthal, both of whom also won Tony Awards for their work on the production. Author Tracy Letts’ other credits include Bug and Killer Joe, both of which were seen at London’s Bush Theatre in the 1990s.
The reaction of the London critics last night echoed that of their New York counterparts, with the majority concluding that August: Osage County more than justified the pre-transfer hype. The ensemble cast received a barrage of plaudits - “one of the greatest acting companies in the world” according to one critic and “superb in even the smallest roles” according to another. Despite minor grumblings from some regarding perceived “clichéd” character construction, the evening was neatly summed up by Whatsonstage.com’s own Michael Coveney as “one of the greatest nights in the theatre I can recall”.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (five stars) – “The arrival of Steppenwolf of Chicago on the South Bank is a truly momentous occasion … Tracy Letts’ big and blowsy, Tony-award winning Oklahoma family drama is a sensation: this is simply one of the greatest acting companies in the world and you have to see them … In contrast to The Family Reunion, this show is less about the paw under the door than the fist in the face … The three-and-a-half hour play develops with the epic grandeur of Eugene O’Neill, the raw bitchiness of Edward Albee and as a study of social disintegration masquerading as a family gathering worthy of Alan Ayckbourn at his best. The chief point, though, is that Letts has written for fellow company members he knows well; this is bespoke material, and one of the greatest nights in the theatre I can recall.”
Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “For transatlantic acting at its finest go to the National, see the Chicago-based Steppenwolf company, and marvel at performances so robust yet so punctilious they’d have had Stanislavsky dancing round Red Square … One of Letts’ achievements is to bring some compassion to this dynastic determinism. Indeed, he has some sympathy for everyone but the slick brother-in-law-to-be who tries to seduce Barbara’s underage daughter. Another is that he keeps us laughing, though often in an appalled sort of way. At its best, here’s a droll Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But there are signs that Letts aspires to write a state-of-America play … Watching manipulative, mischievous Dunagan, or bruised, angry Morton or brassy Rondi Reed or any of Anna Shapiro’s terrific ensemble, you ruefully ask an obvious question. Could a British cast bring such commitment and conviction to this subversive take on Oklahoma!? Surely not.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Exposing the myth of the happy nuclear family has long been a staple of American drama. If Tracy Letts\' play, in a magnificent Chicago Steppenwolf production by Anna D Shapiro, arrives in London garlanded with praise, it is for two reasons. Letts brings to the task of demolition not just the wrecker\'s ball but the joker\'s mask. Running at three and a half hours, his play also satisfies a palpable hunger for big theatrical experiences … Letts\' real strength lies in his understanding of the dynamics of family life; and in this respect he is as close to Ayckbourn as to O\'Neill or Albee. He has a devastating eye for the absurdity of empty rituals. And the highlight here is a funeral dinner party that starts with a rambling attempt to say grace, relying on dim memories of Christianity, and ends with fangs bared.”
Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “Produced by Chicago’s famous Steppenwolf company and decorated with Broadway honours Letts’ play breaks with theatre tradition by interpreting family life as slapstick tragedy, black comedy and steaming hot soap opera all rolled into one …
If only Letts’ people, forever in flight from reality, ran less true to clichéd form. These characters take to suffering and rancour with malicious though comic enthusiasm. Beverly’s widow, Violet, her cruel tongue part of a mouth affected by cancer, has become hopelessly addicted to uppers but this does not diminish the force of her wit. … The high-voltage acting, displayed particularly by Amy Morton’s impassioned Barbara, Mariann Mayberry as her silly, self-pitying sister and Rondi Reed, majoring in vulgarity as Violet’s sister, finally lends this torrid vision of the American dream turned living nightmare a memorable strangeness.”
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) – “I\'m not entirely persuaded that this is the first indisputably great American play of the 21st century, as some have claimed. Though loosely based on events in the life of Letts\' own family, it often seems derivatively inspired by the dramas of Eugene O\'Neill, Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, combined with a dash of top-class American soap opera … Yet why worry whether posterity judges this an enduring state-of-the nation masterpiece or merely an entertaining pastiche of the great American play? What matters now is that August: Osage County is a consistently gripping, moving and often wildly funny melodrama that keeps the audience hooked and enthralled for three and a half hours … By the end of Anna D Shapiro\'s richly detailed, continually absorbing production, you feel you know all the characters well. The acting is superb in even the smallest roles.”
- by Theo Bosanquet