August: Osage County

Warning: This review may contain spoilers.

Oscar Wilde said that each unhappy family is like that in their own way. This play is a moving drama about one such family being unhappy in a myriad of ways, but having one common denominator who has her own price to pay.

In the country of Beverly (Deighton Thomas) and Violet Weston (Dinah Watts), the ailing couple hires a live-in maid called Johanna (Niyiri Karakas) before the whole family visits. However, Beverly disappears just before the gathering and the answer to that mystery will be the spark to tear the family apart.

Family dramas are older than Oedipus Rex, but they still can reflect their times like this dramedy perfectly does. As such, we get an insightful story of a family’s multiple generations finding themselves going into conflicts that all seem rooted in Beverly and Violet’s misanthropy and apparent bad parenting.

As such, the impacts run deep with each of the immediate family and their friends having serious hangups that could drive full plays on their own such as Barbara’s (Sarah Green) bitter need to control everyone around her or Mattie Fae’s (Lesley Quesnelle) contempt for her clumsy son. However, here they play as a full dramatic mosaic that creates a bitter picture of a damaged family trying to find some emotional warmth even as its chances for that are collapsing.

The players are at their zenith at the banquet with Violet going into a drug-addled tirade supplies the emotional high point of the story. As the matriarch digs into everyone’s personal weaknesses with shameless vitriol, the company creates an enthralling dramatic frisson as the family fights to hold their tempers with draining patience. When Barbara explodes with outrage at her mother’s antics, it moves to the kind of angry wish fulfillment for anyone who has had to deal with an obnoxious relative at social gatherings.

In that regard, Green gives a triumphant performance of her own as Barbara, playing a controlling harridan who is still sympathetically considering her mother’s intolerable nature. Seeing her personal triumph at the dinner scene is put in stark perspective as she drives away her own family and her own self-respect with a vindictive ferocity that definitely runs in the family. In the end, Green is able to create a most compelling tragic heroine who manages to escape her domineering mother, only to at best plague other with her belligerent attitude.

By contrast, Karakas is special in her own understated way as Johanne. As a professional Johanne is forced to be the observer of this familial train wreck and try to maintain her own neutrality. However, when Johanne is forced to intervene when things are going too far, the sheer ambivalence of the family at her heroism says more about Johanne’s integrity and how far gone her employers are.

However, sometimes the dramatic conflict is awkwardly maintained such as when Ivy’s (Eva Bahlut) secret relationship is revealed to have a heartbreaking secret of its own. Against all character logic, Ivy reacts as if it is the end of the world when she should know that she inadvertently rendered the basic biological rationale for the taboo involved irrelevant. While it is a minor point in the plot, and ingrained cultural mores can be hard to shake, ignoring character logic in a drama simply to maintain conflict hurts the story as a whole.

Regardless, the ending, if rather overlong after the climatic dinner confrontation, has a powerfully moving coda as Violet, who has neatly alienated her entire family with vicious efficiency, is left alone and desolate. In the face of utter isolation she brought on herself, she seeks solace from the one person she didn’t want in the first place, even knowing that her own motivations are plainly mercenary to a certain degree. When Violet quotes T.S. Eliot as her husband does in the beginning of the story, it completes the tragic circle she is so unconsciously determined to complete.

Finally, the stage is a marvel of artistry: it has a masterfully constructed three-storey skeleton of the farmhouse that serves as the background for the various simpler furniture replacements. Thus designed, it gives both some essential boundaries for the story setting while still setting the story free for its emotional landscape. With the Eric Clapton recording, which is soon replaced with increasingly ominous jazz drumming, the whole atmosphere is easily set for the turmoil to come.

It is said you can’t choose your relatives, and this play is an memorably engaging example of that with a show both amusing and tragic at the same time.