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Review: Soulpepper’s ‘August: Osage County’ is a must-see powerhouse (Includes first-hand account)

Director Jackie Maxwell does perfect justice to Letts’ 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning black comedy, which opened last night. It’s a brutal, blistering portrait of a family so dysfunctional, you long for the tranquil company of Edward Albee’s nut jobs. Maxwell gets help from a fully committed cast of Soulpepper talent, especially Nancy Palk as erratic, pill-popping matriarch Violet Weston, and Maev Beaty as the (relatively) sensible eldest daughter, Barbara, trying and failing to keep everything under control.

What’s so remarkable about this play – and Maxwell’s staging of it – is how it keeps the audience engaged over three and a half hours of dark subject matter. Suicide, incest, drug addiction, child abuse: this could easily have been a depressing, overlong soap opera, but it’s a goldmine for uncomfortable, shocked laughter. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an audience so audibly responsive to a stage play, except when I saw The Woman in Black in the West End several years ago.

August: Osage County brings us to the Weston estate in rural Oklahoma, shortly after patriarch Beverly (Diego Matamoros, seen in a brief prologue), an alcoholic poet and literary professor, has disappeared mysteriously. Left behind are his pill-addicted, cancer-suffering wife Violet and newly hired Native American maid, Johnna (Samantha Brown). This event brings the whole clan to the estate for a chaotic family reunion: Barbara and her pedantic, soon-to-be-ex-hubby Bill (Kevin Hanchard), trying to hide their recent separation; middle daughter Ivy (Michelle Monteith), who appears naïve and homely on the surface, but has a big secret; Violet’s boisterous sister Mattie Fae (Laurie Paton), who bullies her meek, unemployed son Little Charles (Gregory Prest), to the consternation of her kindhearted husband Charles (Oliver Dennis); optimistic youngest daughter Karen (Raquel Duffy), blind to the faults of her shady new fiancé (Ari Cohen); and Barbara’s daughter Jean (Leah Doz), a pot-smoking, movie-obsessed teen who keeps to herself as much as the others let her.

As you would expect with a house full of these southern oddballs, things don’t go well. A painful funeral dinner simmers with suppressed rage and bitterness, eventually bursting into blunt accusations, secrets revealed, and violence. And that’s just the middle act. More shocking revelations and developments, which I dare not reveal, come later on. Letts exposes the fallacy of American family values with a wrench to the genitals, and the miracle of it is that it’s all so funny.

Maxwell paces and blocks this production perfectly, wrenching the best performances she can get out of this cast in a sustained atmosphere of controlled chaos. And nobody is holding back in this cast. Palk is alternately hilarious and frightening as Violet, stoned out of her mind half the time and spewing unexpected wisdom at other moments. She maintains an intense note throughout the play, reaching a stunning peak of anger and self-righteousness in one long, passionate monologue at the dinner. Beaty is equally strong as Barbara, the most sympathetic and self-aware of the main characters, projecting love, rage and pity for her mother in equal measure. Also worth mentioning are Prest, whose goofball likability makes you forgive Little Charles’ addle-brained weakness to a point, and Doz, utterly convincing as a fourteen-year-old who’s smarter and more mature than she lets on.

Camellia Koo’s set design is another asset: a living and dining room set up on a revolving circular floor, in between two curved white staircases that seem dirty, as if neglected or damaged, perhaps reflecting the underlying seediness of this family. Beverly’s books clutter much of the space in the first act, as evidence of a life well-read, but not necessarily well-lived. The revolve brings the living and dining rooms downstage when required for specific scenes; some may find it distracting when actors are being revolved while playing a scene, but I found it cleverly practical.

August: Osage County has been staged in Toronto before, but this Soulpepper production is as exciting as theatre gets in this city. By the end of the second act, you’ll want to splash a glass of water on your face to cool down. (I don’t know if the sweaty look on some of the players in the first act is intentional, but it does a good job of suggesting the stifling heat of the Oklahoma plains in August.) Imagine Long Day’s Journey into Night on steroids, or a nastier Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Then buckle up and get ready for a bumpy ride.

August: Osage County runs at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until June 23.

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