Tuesday, December 02, 2008
August: Osage County at the National
Apologies for the gap in blogging, but the last few days have been all things and stuff and whatnot. Last Friday however there was actually some theatre when 'Barry' and I went to see Tracy Letts' August: Osage County at the National. For the sake of thematic appropriateness, Barry had a pre-show whiskey and I, not having ready access to heavy-duty pharmaceuticals, contented myself with a large glass of merlot.
I had already read the play, having consumed it in one greedy sitting, and thought it a ripping thing, a great dark ride. But though I enjoyed the production hugely, there were certain things that didn't quite click for me – though conceivably this might have something to do with my pre-show excitement levels being so high.
Right then, here are some things that you probably know: San Francisco, Steppenwolf, Broadway, Tony Award and so forth. It premiered last summer, made the leap to New York and then it was awards all the way. And it’s long: L-O-N-G. Three acts, two intervals, three and a bit hours. Though, actually, having said that, I've been to shorter plays that have felt a hell of a lot longer.
The first act takes its time setting things up. The Weston family is a mess. Daddy drinks, mom pops pills. The marriage of the eldest daughter is falling apart. The youngest daughter is engaged to that evil dude from American Gothic so that obviously doesn't bode well. Middle daughter has stayed close to home, only to provide a source of constant frustration and disappointment to her mother. And then dad goes missing and all the various Westons come home. This slow-burn first section leads up to the most amazing central act, an incredibly funny, tightly constructed funeral dinner in which momma Weston sets about each of her family members with the paring knife that passes for her tongue. It was sublime, though Barry objected to the fact that for much of it, we were looking at the characters backs as they sit at the dinner table.
It was the third act where I thought it lost its way a little. There was just too much, revelation after revelation, and not a shred of hope. It felt excessive, even silly, almost like a (very sharply written) soap opera. The extremity of it was alienating and drained any true tragedy out of the final scenes.
The performances were however superb, Deanna Dunagan, as the tiny, pill-raddled mother, clip-clopping down the stairs in her satin pyjamas. Amy Morton was also wonderful as Barbara the eldest daughter, you could see the capacity to become like her parents written within her, despite her external show of strength.
The thing mentioned by many people who have seen the play is recognition, that they see something of themselves and their families in the Westons. I didn’t have this feeling at all, which is perhaps why I didn’t get it in the way some people have, certainly I was aware of two people weeping in the audience at the end of the play, really bawling, clearly affected on a level I was not. I enjoyed so much of this production –the performances, the Gothic dolls-house set, the line “Well, forsook you and the horse you rode in on” - but it lost its grip on me in those last scenes; it seemed a bit to keen to be saying Big Things about America. However that central sequence, that middle scene, well, that was truly wonderful: perfectly pitched, tense and deeply, darkly funny.
If you're interested, my interview with Mr Letts for musicOMH is here.