August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts

Steppenwolf Theatre Company & Sydney Theatre Company | Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay, Sydney | Until 25 September

What a stroke of luck it is that Sydney Theatre Company was able to attract Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company and its production of August: Osage County to Sydney. Combined, no doubt, with some excellent contacts and a raft of skilled management.

Tracy Letts’ extremely witty, dark, drama-infused comedy — which won for him the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama — has been hailed as the first American classic of the 21st century.

And Steppenwolf, itself regarded as one of world’s premier ensembles, has made this towering production its own, winning five Tony Awards during its 2008 Broadway season — best play (Tracy Letts), best direction (Anna D Shapiro), best leading actress (Deanna Dunagan), best featured actress (Rondi Reed) and best scenic design (Todd Rosenthal).

I don’t know if Letts has made the trip Down Under, but all four other Tony winners are here, as are quite a few other original cast members.

Sydney Theatre Company is having something of a love affair with blockbusting American drama this season. Comparisons will undoubtedly — and for good reason — be drawn with Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night, which STC staged a few months ago in partnership with Oregon’s Artists Repertory Theatre.

They are both monumental, three-hour works dealing with family disintegration fuelled by drugs and alcohol.

But there are differences, too. While A Long Day’s Journey into Night is essentially a drama with touches of comic relief, August: Osage County is structured as a black comedy woven around supporting threads of pathos and drama.

O’Neill’s masterpiece was written nearly 70 years ago and, while it has certainly stood the test of time, the very contemporary nature of August: Osage County does make it more enjoyably accessible.

Also, despite Robyn Nevin’s show-stealing performance, A Long Day’s Journey into Night focuses on the men in the Tyrone family. Letts has crafted a work in which women have the upper hand, both in terms ruling the domestic roost and in the depth of acting opportunities offered.

Dunagan is absolutely masterful as Violet Weston, the pill-sozzling matriarch of the family and the three-storey Oklahoma residence which she manages to keep unbearably hot during the long summer on the American plains.

When her husband, the drunken but generally respected Beverly Weston (Chelcie Ross), disappears, later to be found drowned, almost certainly the result of suicide, the family gathers to pay respects and plan the future.

This, too, is women’s work, mostly left to Violet, her eldest daughter Barbara (Amy Morton) and her sister Aunt Mattie Fae (Rondi Reed). They’re a formidable trio — all hard as nails, but none harder, nor more scheming and conniving than Violet, who can barely struggle down the stairs yet has a tongue that would quench a dragon.

Never have I heard someone deliver with so much conviction the line “Why don’t you go fuck a fucking sow up the arse”. But then, I’ve probably never heard the line delivered before anyway.

And how she can so simply and effectively reduce the males at the table to sheepishly put their jackets back on, despite the fact that it’s at least forty in the shade: “Is this a funeral dinner or a cockfight?”

Amy Morton is brilliant as the so-perfectly-matter-of-fact middle-aged daughter whose marriage to the hard-trying, long-suffering Bill (Jeff Perry) has collapsed and whose 14-year-old daughter Jean (Molly Ranson) is already in preliminary stages of sexual and mind-altering experimentation.

Morton, I gather, didn’t appear in Steppenwolf’s Broadway production, but I reckon she’d have given Dunagan a good run for the best-female-actor Tony. When she flies across the stage, near strangles her mother, and bellows “I’m in charge now”, you know she means business. Yet when she realises her husband really is leaving her for a teenage student, there’s a softness that could make you cry.

But look, all the acting here is absolutely outstanding.

There’s Tony-winner Rondi Reed as the larger-than-life Mattie Fae, carrying a secret that could easily explain the condescension she shows her son Little Charles, himself played perfectly as the mistake-riddled, incompetent and very troubled offspring by Gary Wilmes.

There’s Paul Vincent O’Connor as Mattie Fae’s husband, the very decent, self-effacing, sincere Charlie, trying desperately to take on the mantle of patriarch.

And there are Violet’s younger daughters: Sally Murphy as the withdrawn, slightly hippyish earth-child Ivy; and Mariann Mayberry as the air-headed, self-obsessed Karen, who just can’t see for a minute what an absolute bucket of sleaze her fiancée Gary (Steve Heidebrecht) is. You could feel the audience cringe as one when Gary ran his hand up the face of Karen’s niece Jean and promised to blow her mind with some really good dope.

Special mention must go, too, to Kimberley Guerrero as the Indian (or should I say “native American”?) housekeeper, who’s always there, much of the time in the background, playing her bit perfectly. And Troy West as the most sheriff-like sheriff I’ve ever seen.

The staging, by set designer Todd Rosenthal and lighting designer Ann Wrightson, is exemplary. The three-story house they establish and light up is without peer.

And my favourite line? Barbara explaining to her two younger sisters how she’d uncovered a bottle of pills in her mother’s “cooch”. Don’t ask, just go along and see for yourself what I’m sure is one of the finest pieces of theatre staged in Australia over the past decade.

Do it now. Contact the theatre and make a booking. The season has been extended to 25 September. Did you hear me? Book now, right now. This minute.

I won’t come round and rip your bloody arms off if you don’t. But you will be sorry.

© All photos by Grant Sparkes-Carroll 2010

Deanna Dunagan and Rondi Reed.

Amy Morton.

Molly Ranson, Rondi Reed and Paul Vincent O’Connor.