by Lynn on June 7, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Tracy Letts

Directed by Jackie Maxwell

Set by Camellia Koo

Costumes by Gillian Gallow

Lighting by Davida Tkach

Composer and sound design by Deanna H. Choi

Cast: Maev Beaty

Samantha Brown

Ari Cohen

Oliver Dennis

Leah Doz

Raquel Duffy

Kevin Hanchard

Diego Matamoros

Jeff Meadows

Michelle Monteith

Nancy Palk

Laurie Paton

Gregory Prest

Tracy Letts’ explosive play about an American dysfunctional family, given a gripping, compelling production directed by Jackie Maxwell and acted by this city’s finest actors.  A gift.

The Story. It’s about an American dysfunctional family in Osage County, Oklahoma, in August.

Beverly Weston is the patriarch of the family. He is a minor poet, a university professor, and a full time alcoholic. He disappears early in the play.  Before he disappears he hires a live-in cook named Johnna, a member of the Cheyenne people, to take care of his wife Violet. Beverly’s disappearance brings his three daughters home to support their mother. Violet is a mean-mouthed, angry, drug addicted woman suffering from cancer of the mouth. And she smokes.  Irony is everything in a Tracy Letts play.

You see the dynamic of the daughters: Ivy Weston is meek and stayed in the area to be near her family. Karen Weston has terrible luck with men and moved to Florida. She has returned with her latest fiancé, Steve. Barbara Fordham is the strongest daughter emotionally and also moved away when she got married and her husband got a job. Violet has little good to say about her children but it’s Barbara who can stand up to her.

The Production.  Director Jackie Maxwell’s stunning, meticulous production rises up to the challenge of the play brilliantly. Maxwell is a sensitive director who is not afraid of going for the jugular and the play is full of such moments.

You get a sense of the size and sweep of the Weston house in Camellia Koo’s two story set. A winding staircase goes up and across a landing to Johnna’s room then a back staircase leads down to the back of the dining room (up at the back) and Beverly’s cramped office stage right. Down centre is the living room with a couch and comfy furniture.

The play opens with Beverly (Diego Matamoros) ‘interviewing’ Johnna (Samantha Brown) for the job of live-in cook. The speech is mainly about himself and his difficult family. Diego Matamoros quietly downs drink after drink, not getting drunk, but certainly conveying Beverly has a dependence on the booze. His speech is thoughtful, tempered, nuanced and telling. Of all of the family, Beverly might be the one who actually cares about Violet. They have been married a long time. He does engage Johnna to take care of her. Through the long speech Samantha Brown as Johnna is absolutely still, listening to everything Beverly says. This still focus makes her riveting. At one point Beverly asks Johnna if she still wants the job. She says that she needs the work. I found that telling. She didn’t say she needs the money. She said she needs the work.

At a crucial point in the play the set turns on a revolve and the dining room goes from upstage to down centre so we get the full brunt of Violet’s invective at a dinner for the family.

Nancy Palk plays Violet and this is some of the finest work I’ve seen her do. Her first entrance is as a hunched, crazed-looking woman who is strung out on drugs for her mouth cancer. She is abrasive to anyone who comes near her.  When she feels better later on, she is tall, confident and formidable.

Ivy Weston (Michelle Monteith), the youngest daughter, has not moved away from the area. This means Violet can hurl insults at her whenever she appears—she’s plain, not pretty, could use some lipstick, and on and on.  Michelle Monteith, as Ivy takes it with a stooped resignation.

Raquel Duffy plays Karen Weston, the middle daughter. She has returned home with her latest fiancé and has that glowing blush of a woman in love with her dashing man, but it’s mixed with trepidation at having to deal with her mother and the family dynamic. Ari Cohen does wonderful work as Steve the sleazy fiancé.

As Barbara Fordham, the oldest daughter, Maev Beaty fills this character with all manner of detail.  Her marriage is crumbling but she returns with her wayward husband Bill (a solid performance from Kevin Hanchard) and moody, flirty teenage daughter Jean (Leah Doz). And Barbara has to contend with a mother who is hurtful and full of invective.

Beaty gives a performance full of rage, misplaced anger and controlled emotion until it just erupts like a volcano. This is a performance that is an equal and worthy match with Nancy Palk.

It’s a wonderful ensemble that realizes the richness of this play and these characters. I can’t recommend it enough.

 Comment. August: Osage County is a tough play. It’s brutal and that’s part of its beauty. I liken August: Osage County to the Long Day’s Journey into Night of the 21st Century. Or King Lear with a woman as the ruler.  The play shows the result of anger, meanness and public humiliation on a family and how they react and fight back.

You see the fallout with every relationship of all concerned.  Tracy Letts is a powerhouse playwright. He’s written Bug, Killer Joe and Superior Donuts. His language is bitingly funny and perceptive when revealing a disappointed heart. He knows how to build a character with dazzling language and nuanced writing.  He knows society and how people think and deal with each other.

The play builds and builds revealing more and more secrets.  It’s like watching championship boxing or wrestling. It’s brutal, bloody and ruthless but you can’t look away. It’s a play that is compelling and draws the audience in. But while the characters are stuck in that play, the audience can go home at the end.

I always find the inclusion of Johnna, a woman of the Cheyenne people interesting. Johnna is the only one left with Violet at the end of the play. Is it a stretch to say that the Indigenous people of America are taking back their positions as caretakers of the land because Johnna is cradling Violet at the end? Perhaps. Letts includes her for a reason, leaving us lots to chew on.

Presented by Soulpepper Theatre Company

Opened: May 24, 2019.

Closes: June 30, 2019.

Running Time: 3 hours, 15 minutes.


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1 Jacob Moro June 10, 2019 at 4:24 pm

This is a great post! I love how you include details about the story, the production, and your thoughts in separate sections. I especially like your comparisons to boxing matches. I totally understand what you mean. I’ve yet to see a show at Soulpepper, but many people have strongly recommended that this is the one to see. I looked up a review of it and I wasn’t disappointed after clicking on yours! Also, I agree that this production has the cities finest actors. Discovering who is in the cast made me buy tickets immediately! I’m seeing it this coming weekend! I’ll be sure to post my thoughts on this page:)