Theatre review: August: Osage County

Emily Winter as Barbara and Ann Louise Ross as Violet show the cracks in the Weston family
Emily Winter as Barbara and Ann Louise Ross as Violet show the cracks in the Weston family
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The set is huge: too huge, really, a giant rotating thing that creaks and groans and features dozens of wooden posts that sometimes obscure the actors’ faces. What it conveys, though, is something central to Tracy Letts’s award-winning 2007 drama August: Osage County, now receiving its Scottish premiere at Dundee Rep, as the opening production of Andrew Panton’s first season as artistic director.

Dundee Rep ****

The play revolves –in this case literally – around the idea of home, as a place of refuge to which people return in times of stress; the set represents the home of the Weston family, somewhere on the plains of Oklahoma, in a baking hot August.

Yet the point of Letts’s ruthless, no holds barred family drama – a three and a half hour big-cast epic written for his own Steppenwolf Ensemble in Chicago, and now embraced with joy by the Dundee Rep Ensemble – is to suggest that for many people, the family is no such thing; at best a pretence of the values it is supposed to embody, and at worst an appalling, sometimes hilarious monster, that reproduces emotional violence down the generations.

The emotional epicentre of the story lies with Violet, the fierce, unforgiving, sharp-witted, heavily pill-addicted, and often terrifyingly aggressive mother and grandmother, brilliantly played here by Ann Louise Ross.

Obsessed with the hardships her generation endured during their 1930s childhood, and savagely unimpressed with her own three 40-something daughters, Violet trusts only her younger sister Mattie Fae, who understands where she comes from; and when Violet’s husband Beverly disappears, and the clan gathers to deal with the crisis, it gradually becomes clear that some family ties have to be broken, in order to avoid devastating damage.

Panton’s production – beautifully lit by Chris Davey, with a fine score by Michael John McCarthy – features a tremendous ensemble performance from the Rep company, with additional artists; there’s fine work from Irene Macdougall as Mattie Fae, Emily Winter as eldest daughter Barbara, and Liam Brennan as middle daughter Karen’s sleazy 
new boyfriend, among many others.

And in an age when politicians are still inclined to talk piously of “the family” as a universal positive, Letts’s powerful, resonant play comes as a salutary reminder that things are not so straightforward; and that even on the great plains of America, where life was once a simple matter of survival, blood is not always thicker than water, and often – in the end – much less useful.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

Until 16 September