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August: Osage County

Tracy Letts
Steppenwolf
RNT Lyttelton
(2008)

August: Osage County is undoubtedly the best play that the National has seen since The History Boys. This is a great coup for Nicholas Hytner, who has persuaded Steppenwolf to bring their multi-award-winning creation to London. He is currently riding high with Sir David Hare's superb Gethsemane playing next door in the Cottesloe.

The play is already weighed down by the Pulitzer Prize, as well as Tonys not only for its writer but also his director, scenic designer and lead plus supporting actors. London will undoubtedly follow suit.

Tracy Letts' family drama manages to thrill, shock and tear at the heart but, despite the underlying seriousness of its issues, never going long without raising a stream of raucous laughs.

It centres on the home of the Westons up country in Oklahoma -overheated Midwestern Plains territory. Within Todd Rosenthal's magnificent set, a three-storey wooden house that is still not big enough to contain the overblown egos of a dozen highly-educated people, revelations fuel 3½ hours of family feuding that fly by.

One measure of quality is that watching the play in a new location almost a year on, it still has the power to surprise and delight on a constant basis, even the scenes that are literally unforgettable.

This is in part down to collective magnificence from a 13-strong cast shipped across almost intact from New York (and before that Chicago). That is despite the fact that the play still defies the odds by continuing its run into a second year on Broadway. Nowadays, straight plays hardly get a look in there, especially by contemporary, home-grown playwrights.

The actors are perfectly drilled once again by Anna D. Shapiro, whose innate sense of timing makes every laugh tell and periodically allows shivers to travel down the audience's collective spine.

The plot is initiated in a short scene during which Beverley, the patriarch-poet tellingly played by the writer's late father in Chicago and New York, welcomes a Native American carer, Kimberly Guerrero as Johnna, to the wonders of his home. The house is dominated by Violet, his slight, cancerous, pill-popping wife who plays on and perhaps causes his Beverley's educated drunkenness.

He literally disappears and we then get The Family Reunion that owes more to O'Neill, Shepard and even Chekhov that Eliot's play of that title, which had opened at the Donmar the previous evening.

Viewers might argue over Tracy Letts' finest creation but Deanna Dunagan is the one who will continue to win awards as the straight-talking mother, Violet. Again and again with her fierce intelligence, she fuels the flames of her combustible family. By the end, there is a suspicion that rather than schadenfreude, her motives might be purer, as her wisdom prevents some almost unspeakable disasters.

In Osage County, it is a fact of life that the women get the best parts because they are more powerful and strident than their menfolk. The couple have three middle-aged daughters, helpfully colour-coded.

Blonde Barbara - Amy Morton on top form - is a clone of her mother much to her own distress. In addition to mourning her beloved dad whose body eventually washes up on a lakeshore, she has much else to put up with. Her travails include husband Bill's betrayal with his young student and her 14-year-old daughter Jean's serial pubertal problems, sympathetically portrayed by Molly Ranson.

Brunette Ivy (Sally Murphy) has found love at long last but can a first cousin ever be suitable, even one less immature than Ian Barford's pathetic Little Charles?

He suffers at the hands of his hilariously overbearing mother Mattie Fae, played with gusto by deserving Tony winner Rondi Reed, finally put in her place by her husband Charlie but 38 years too late.

That leaves the redheaded Karen. Mariann Mayberry plays the textually least developed of the sisters, who like her siblings struggles to find love. It seems to have come along in the hunky shape of Steve (Gary Cole) but this is Osage County where it seems that marital bliss is an impossibility.

Through a love of language and an injection of the inspirational, Tracy Letts has written a play filled with devastating psychological insights that not only says vast amounts about ordinary people but, in doing so, illuminates the United States today in all of its deeply flawed, imperialistic glory.

Go and see August: Osage County as this is one of the highlights of the theatrical year. Then, if you get the chance, go and see it again or buy the script (Nick Hern Books £8.99) as this wonderful creation really does get better and better given time for reflection.

Philip also reviewed this production in New York

Reviewer: Philip Fisher