Review – August: Osage County – Steppenwolf at the National Theatre

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Tonight I got to see a show I have been waiting to see for a year, since I first read about it in the New York Times: August: Osage County, the Pulitzer prize winning play by Tracy Letts that is receiving its European premiere this week at London’s National Theatre. The phrase “It is, flat-out, no asterisks and without qualifications, the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years” had me drooling and going mad that it was so far away. In fact, my secret plan was to see it this winter in New York, but No! The original cast was leaving Broadway! I was doomed to only see a shallow recreation of the original …

until I read that the Steppenwolf cast was coming to remount it in London. Hurray!

Of course, this only meant that I was doomed to be disappointed as this incredibly over-hyped show proved to me, once again, that you can never meet hopes that are raised to such a fever pitch.

This, in fact, is not the case. Is August: Osage County the best show I’ve seen on a London stage this year? I’m afraid so. Is it the best play written in America in, say, the last five years? Well, I am pretty damned sure it is. In fact, it’s about the only new play I’ve ever seen that made me feel like I’d actually seen a show that was going to make it into the canon. A family drama with the psychological knife of Ibsen, the turmoil of O’Neil’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the desperation of Death of a Salesman … God yes, this play was brilliant. It hit the key question that a great play must be able to say yes to: did I just see a play where I felt like the characters had lives before the show, and after? Osage County somehow managed to put thirteen people on stage of which only four were filler. Every other one, I could probably think about it and tell you a little bit about their childhood, and what they did a month after the end of the play. It was that good.

I will try to stop the foaming at the mouth and review it just a bit. The story is that the … uh, don’t want to give away any plot points … matriarch of this Oklahoma family has her daughters and sister (and spouses, and one grandchild) gathered around her, and she is … falling apart. Deanna Dunagan (as Beverly Weston) plays a manipulative, pill-popping, vicious woman the likes of which I haven’t seen since All About Eve. She was a force of disruption everywhere she went, and while I can’t be sure that muscle relaxants will quite make someone act the way she did, I completely bought into her character.

Also brilliant were Rondi Reed (as Violet’s sister Mattie Fay Aiken) and Amy Morton (as Barbara Fordham, her eldest daughter). I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen so many good roles for women “of a certain age” on stage at the same time. They were angry, they were tender, they were hurt, they had secrets, they had goals in their lives they wanted to accomplish. I thought of the wimpy heroines of Chekov and thought, give me these foul mouthed, strong willed gals any old day.

My only complaint about the evening was the excessive laughter of the audience (which occasionally made it hard to hear what the actors were saying – perhaps a bit of a problem with the sound design, also?). There were several funny lines, but it seemed the audience really and truly thought they were at a comedy, rather than watching the sad disintegration of a group of people who might even love each other underneath the nastiness. Maybe they were really uncomfortable with the tension on stage – the post-funeral dinner was like fingernails on a chalkboard – or maybe there was some extra layer of English sensitivity that was being hit that I didn’t get. It is a serious play with some funny moments, but it is not in any way “uproarious.” It really is just the simple truth about how things are, and I think a lot of people don’t like to admit that way more people have families like this than you want to believe.

At any rate, GOD, a four star night. It’s here for eight weeks; open up your wallet and buy your tickets now.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, November 28th. Be advised the running time is three and a half hours – starts at 7:15, done at 10:45 – though I just felt like time flew by while I was in the theater.)

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5 Responses to “Review – August: Osage County – Steppenwolf at the National Theatre”

  1. “Monkey - Journey to the West” two for one offer - and deal on “August: Osage County” - both deals ending December 23 « Webcowgirl’s Theatre Reviews Says:

    […] deal is being offered on August: Osage County, possibly the best play I’ve seen all year (absolutely four stars) and without doubt the most impressive script to come out of America in […]

  2. Review - Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab - 47th Street Theater « Webcowgirl’s Theatre Reviews Says:

    […] play was aimed right square at ME, and it was #2 on my list of things to see in New York, since August: Osage County had blissfully made it to the stage of London’s National Theatre and Xanadu had rather […]

  3. Review - South Pacific - Lincoln Center « Webcowgirl’s Theatre Reviews Says:

    […] Pacific became the one show I had to see (thanks to the fortuitous temporary relocation of the Steppenwolf to these […]

  4. Webcowgirl’s review of London theater 2008 « Life in the Cheap Seats - Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] show: it wasn’t just the hype: for me, “August: Osage County” was a “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” kind of […]

  5. Review – Ghosts – Arcola Theatre « Life in the Cheap Seats – Webcowgirl’s London theatre reviews Says:

    […] from start to finish with barely a pause to catch its breath. It was like a 19th century version of August, Osage County – incest, drug use, suicide, and the kind of deep dark family dysfunctions that were far more […]

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