August: Osage County, a great challenge full of surprises!


Courtesy of Alumnae Theatre.

Courtesy of Alumnae Theatre.

What a Chef d’œuvre is the theatre play August: Osage County by Tracy Letts! His play is incredibly well written, punchy, unpredictable and makes the audience members love drama. However, because this piece of art is a remarkable one and is indeed a drama, it is very challenging to direct and play.

August: Osage County is a thriller, a family reunion, a funeral dinner, a continuing fight twisted with cut-sharp lines, secrets, revelations, mistakes, and more. There is a lot to play at once and a lot to make magic with. Its subplots also enrich the storyline and help the spectators to identify with more than one character.

I am also a fan of family oriented stories. This brilliant American play reminds me of Michel Tremblay’s work. Michel Tremblay is considered to be the French-Canadian theatre pioneer, as most of his plays encounter success: Les Belles Soeurs being his most famous play. I saw Mois d’août, Osage County, the Québécois adaptation of Lett’s play in 2014 by Le Théâtre du Trident in Québec city. Rapidly, it dawned on me the similarities between Lett’s and Tremblay’s work. Inspired by his childhood, the many women surrounding him, the working-class he grew up in: Michel Tremblay is considered one of the best playwrights for women. August: Osage County tells the story of a family and also portrays strong female characters. Moreover I watched the screen adaptation directed by John Wells. Tonight was the third time I heard the same story and I have been charmed every time! I laughed, I cried. I knew the next scene coming, I knew some of the lines; I knew how it was going to end. My experience with August: Osage County was much like revisiting a classic, such as Romeo and Juliet, or Wicked because you love the play and because you want to see a different vision, and interpretation of the play. The writing makes it easy: it’s brilliant, funny and entertaining. I would lie if I said I didn’t come to Alumnae Theatre without any expectations. I had high expectations.

I remember the French version being staged in a bigger venue than Alumnae Theatre’s, and I couldn’t see the actors’ expressions clearly as I was way too far away. I am glad Alumnae Theatre’s performance was more intimate, mostly due to the theatre dimensions. In my opinion Lett’s play needs to be staged in a ‘’hidden-camera’’ environment. The set itself was a simplistic but tasty representation of three rooms on the main floor, a sitting area by a large window on the second floor and the attic bedroom on the top floor, all parts of the house furnished wisely. The only thing that bothered me was during the funeral dinner’s scene. I was sitting near the stage on the left corner, facing the dinner table, and I couldn’t see half of the actors. I had to move constantly in my chair to follow the action of the scene. I couldn’t see Violet Weston at all, played by Marie Carriere Gleason, which is very unfortunate as she starts the drama in this scene. I am sure people sitting higher up and on the right corner had a better view than me, but I believe it wasn’t smart staging for the audience ensemble.

The lighting was on point, symbolic, colourful, especially when Barbara Fordham, played by Kelly-Marie Murtha, said her most attended line: “I’m running things now” as the stage turned dark and a red shower illuminated her with a western-music sound effect: a wink that the story takes place in Oklahoma. It was a much more comedic line delivery compared to the movie and the Québécois version I saw. It was different, and well done. I also thought the music made the transitions smoother and supported well the different moods of the scenes.

Speaking of comedy, Beverly Weston’s opening speech was wonderful. It was dry, but funny and very compelling. I remember the Québécois actor working really hard during this same speech and even in my mother tongue I couldn’t follow him along. Thomas Gough performed a simplistic and realistic soliloquy. I felt I was witnessing a real conversation. Later on in the play we see his daughter, Barbara, who is ‘’running things now’’, sitting at the very desk where he hired Johnna and performed his opening monologue. In this scene Barbara is symbolically replacing her recently deceased father – drinking whisky just like him – showing that Barbara is indeed the new leader of her family; following in daddy’s footsteps, backing up Violet’s constant statement that Barbara was Beverly’s favorite. Wise!

I had a crush on Little Charles Aiken. He was so embarrassed and emotional and clumsy: we all have a family member or a friend like him in our entourage. Thumbs up Neil Cameron for a delightful performance! And his chemistry with Ivy Weston, played by Andrea Lyons was adorable. A little bit of incestuous, but truthful, love to shock standard conventions is great. The audience couldn’t decide whether or not to accept their relationship (as they were the happiest couple in this play). All the other couples have issues, such as Barbara who had been cheated on by her husband, Bill Fordham, prior to the beginning of the play. Played by Kelly-Marie Murtha and Paul Cotton, their scenes were powerful, heartbreaking and sharp; I didn’t feel they were ‘’acting’’.

Marie Carriere Gleason was offered a very challenging part. At first, we think Violet is crazy, but she is in fact not. She is a highly manipulative woman who knows how to get her way. She is also addicted to her prescribed pills for her mouth cancer. She mostly acts crazy even if she is not; she is a true pain in the butt to deal with: she screams at everyone and she is constantly high on drugs. Violet is the kind of character you don’t want to put into a box because it would be too stereotypical and untruthful. Meryl Streep was Violet in the screen adaptation. Carriere Gleason didn’t seem intimidated by this and plunged right into Violet’s world. She offered a good performance but I believe her Violet could have taken more room in the story. In this August: Osage County the focus was more on Barbara, which isn’t wrong but Violet’s part is itself a wild party. The Catfish scene between Barbara, Ivy and Violet, for instance, was unbelievable. So much was going on! It was great! They broke dishes all right!

So far we’ve got incestuous love, extra marital affairs, drug abuse, then what? Pedophilia! Melinda Jordan and Chris Peterson also formed a good pair. Peterson’s character, Steve Heidebrecht, was very charming but also bad news. Every time he complimented the young Jean Fordham, performed by Jordan, or did something questionable to his teenage counterpart, the audience was always laughing and/or disgusted. His creepiness worked well for the audience. I also loved to see Jean bursting out of her shell when she talked to Johnna, Violet’s caregiver, in the attic room. Teenagers often shut themselves off, especially around adults, and Jean felt she could open up to Johnna, the youngest adult in the house. The conversation also crumbled into awkwardness between the two characters, and Jordan’s performance was hilarious and well paced! Her smoking marijuana was also realistic.

Marie Carriere Gleason (foreground), with Paul Cotton, Kelly-Marie Murtha, Melinda Jordan, Pearl Ho & Andrew Batten – photo courtesy of Bruce Peters

Marie Carriere Gleason (foreground), with Paul Cotton, Kelly-Marie Murtha, Melinda Jordan, Pearl Ho & Andrew Batten – photo courtesy of Bruce Peters

Unfortunately, I felt some characters were unassuming, such as the married couple Charles Aiken and Mattie Fae Aiken. There was an ongoing drama throughout the play between them because of their son, Little Charles. Mattie is threatening her son harshly, and at some point her husband Charles has had enough and orders her to stop or else it won’t work between the two. We can assume he meant their marriage won’t last but the stakes weren’t high enough to believe it. I felt the conflict was choreographed and didn’t meet its climax. It was a safe performance that didn’t land where it should have. Most of their scenes seemed rushed; the actors didn’t let their characters live fully and I am not only talking about the dramatic parts. There were also endearing moments when they were teasing each other that had the same ill effect. We often see young people on stage playing the game of seduction, but it was an older couple going at it and I wanted it to last longer! It was mischievous, beautiful, refreshing, but short. Give me more! Just because Charles and Mattie’s situation is a subplot doesn’t mean that it’s less important. However Charles’ endless grace before dinner at the table was hilarious! Good pace, great job!

Kathleen Jackson Allamby, who played Karen Weston, also gave a safe performance. She was funny but I believe she could have been more. Her character is the kind to be ‘’all over the place’’, so her everlasting speeches were a challenge. I lost some bits of it, and I wanted her character to get more on my nerves too as her part is written just this way. August: Osage County offers colourful, powerful, profound, and beautiful characters. Make the most of it! Her final speech after her fiancé Steve and young Jean are caught kissing was very touching and from the heart.

I also thought Johnna, played by Pearl Ho, was very discrete. Johnna’s character isn’t originally given a lot of lines, but I wanted to see her more. Acting is not just lines. She could have wondered around the house more, clean; simply be on stage. Her entrances were happening only for a line to come. She could have been a bigger part of the story, physically. By the end of the play, we don’t know much about her, but that she doesn’t want to lose her job. In fact the audience doesn’t really care about the caregiver. Her acting was fine but something was missing. But then, it’s not entirely the actress’s fault.

Andrew Batten as the Sheriff offered a nice and sweet performance. Barbara is soon to be divorced, devastated by her husband’s infidelity, but Murtha and Batten’s chemistry and their characters’ past/current love gives hope to the audience . After a failed and difficult marriage, they prove love can flourish again with someone else. It was touching and refreshing after witnessing what Barbara went through during the whole play.

Unfortunately the stage combat wasn’t entirely on point. From where I was seated, I saw that Barbara didn’t slap her daughter’s face like intended, and the frying pan hit wasn’t realistic either because of its sound effect and angle.

In its entirety though, I really enjoyed the play. I’d buy a second ticket and come another night. I recommend that everyone goes to see August: Osage County, wherever you can, as it is an amazing story.

I just wish the play wasn’t so rushed. Theatre always displays magic moments on stage and Victoria Shepherd identified them all with wit! I am talking about those moments of suspension that make all the characters and conflicts even more real: a look between two characters, a silence filled with everything but silence; an extra breath. Because the pace was too fast, I couldn’t enjoy the magic of a scene or those little moments. Rhythm is key: sometimes it’s too fast, sometimes it’s too slow, sometime it’s stopped and we don’t understand why, but sometimes it’s just right!