BWW Review: Soulpepper's Explosive Family Drama AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY Crackles with Tension and Comedy
In a new production of AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, director Jackie Maxwell guides a 13-person cast through the highs and lows of the Weston family during a family tragedy. In Maxwell and the ensembles' capable hands, Tracy Letts's delicate balance of comedy and cruelty is presented as fully as possible.
After the disappearance of the Weston family patriarch Beverly (Diego Matamoros), his three daughters return home to their mother Violet (Nancy Palk) with their own families and issues in tow. The eldest, Barbara (Maev Beaty) brings her estranged husband Bill (Kevin Hanchard) and unruly daughter Jean (Leah Doz). Middle child Karen (Raquel Duffy) blows in from Miami with her skeevy businessman-fiancé Steve (Ari Cohen), while Ivy (Michelle Monteith), the baby of the family, only has to drive through town to check on everyone, as she never strayed far from her parents.
Aside from the immediate family, Violet's sister Mattie Fae (Laurie Paton) and her long-suffering husband Charlie (Oliver Dennis) spend their time visiting bickering with each other about their habits and son "Little" Charles (Gregory Prest). The presence of housekeeper Johnna (Samantha Brown), a Cheyenne woman hired by Beverly just before his disappearance is always welcome in this hectic story. Brown moves quietly from room to room as a sort of silent guardian, preventing trouble and cleaning up messes constantly but never getting involved in the hysterics that almost constantly accompany Weston family interactions.
Despite the large cast of characters the story centres around Violet and Barbara, allowing both Palk and Beaty plenty of space to flesh out the Weston matriarch and her eldest daughter. Their emotional back and forth, ranging from soft, tender moments to violent outbursts and mutinous takeovers ground this story of addiction, cruelty and familial obligation. Palk's controlled tics, her jumbled words, and her cold, calculating stare make Violet a haunting figure throughout, and Beaty's adoption of similar tics and cruelty as things fall apart under her control are an effective way of showing the similarities between the women.
Another highlight of the cast and story is the nosy know-it-all Aunt Mattie Fae, who begins as a purely comedic character but descends into the same cruelty as her sister. Paton lays the groundwork for Mattie Fae's natural meanness early on, and her bickering with Dennis - mainly over her treatment of their son Charles - is intriguing throughout the show.
While the Weston's begin the show in a dark place - literally, as Beverly and Violet reside in a hot, rotting home with the windows always covered - there are a substantial number of twists in the three acts. On opening night, the main reveal dropped in act two even elicited screams from the audience, who were extremely vocal throughout the play.
The windows and rotting foundation (set design by Camellia Koo) were contrasted beautifully by stark white paint, reflective of the Weston's desire to not discuss family issues in favour of ignoring or covering them up. The use of a rotating floor allowed for an interesting scene transition in act two, with the room literally spinning during an outburst between family members. Lighting (design by Davida Tkach) and sound (design and compositions by Deanna H. Choi) were complimentary to the story without being distracting.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY is a turbulent family drama, and any concerns that a three-and-a-half-hour show might drag on can be dispersed. The constant battles between parents and children, husbands and wives, and relatives and outsiders in a hot Oklahoma house are brought to life vividly by a talented cast. Soulpepper's production is a flawless example of how to portray familial tension hand in hand with comedy, and highlights the fear many children have of becoming just like their parents.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY runs through June 23 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON.
For more information or to buy tickets, visit https://soulpepper.ca/performances/august-osage-county/6179
Main image credit: Cylla von Tiedemann