I confess: I baulk at the notion of a fully-imported play. I had questions and doubts when Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton brought the joint venture Long Day’s Journey to Sydney Theatre, so the questions and doubts may be the same in principle now, but the scale is grander (you’ve only got to get a glimpse of the triple-storey set). All my fears, questions, doubts and principles flew out the window, however, within moments (if that) of this play kicking-off.

I might as well come right out and say it: even factoring-in my notorious memory, or lack thereof, I believe this is the finest modern play, and production, I’ve ever seen. It’s transparently easy to see where that Pulitzer and those five Tonys (including best play) came from. The savvy of Tracy Letts’ writing makes Eugene O’Neill’s look positively flabby and self-indulgent. I know; sacrilege. Just as well I don’t live in the US, or I might be lynched, by aging literature professors. Steppenwolf Theatre Company has indeed proven itself to be one of Chicago’s great cultural ambassadors (well, after Al Capone and Oprah) and, clearly, continues to do so.

We open on Beverly Weston, played by Chelcie Ross. (Don’t ask me what’s with all these girls’ names for blokes: Tracy, Beverly and Chelcie are all men.) We’re in his study, in a sprawling, old-world country home, somewhere outside Pawhuska, Oklahoma; a blur or blot on Google Earth, 60 miles north-west of Tulsa (I expect it takes 24 hours to get there, from wherever you are). Beverly is interviewing a prospective housekeeper, putting away plenty of Scotch and holding forth on the subject of his family (especially his pill-popping wife) and T.S. Eliot: how someone like T.S. can state the bleeding obvious but, because he’s T. S., own it and tote it up to his genius.

Immediately, one is engaged by Letts’ cynicism, humour, clarity, colouration, character and distinctive voice. It is unhurried, but not overly dense. There’s nothing superfluous, but nothing overlooked. Every element of speech is devoted to vivifying Beverly Weston and, within minutes, we feel like we know him very well. Now that’s an art. Yet there’s nothing ‘arty’ or artficial about this work. Well, okay, there might be the odd contrivance, or exaggeration, for the sake of a laugh here-and-there. But in each and every case, it’s well worth it. Within minutes, too, we’ve a vivid picture, at least from the patriarch’s point-of-view, of his wife, daughters and disposition. It’s like a home-cooked meal: familiar, comforting and satisfying from the very first mouthful. But there’s plenty rotten in the state of Denmark, as is about to unfold.

While Beverly pontificates, Johnna Monevata (played by Kimberly Guerrero) sits patiently and silently, the very picture of dignity and forebearance. These qualities, apparently, endear her to Beverly, who hires her. After a time, he enquires as to her background and again, in the space of mere minutes, we glean much about her and simultaneously are reminded of the forgotten Native Americans, who occupy an uncannily similar invisible space to our own indigenes. And we are reminded of Native Americans, incidentally, without didacticism or force, again and again throughout the play. This is the way all the larger themes and ideas are handled: with delicacy and panache; as deftly woven into the overall material as a seamstress would tease a golden thread through an otherwise neutral cardigan.

Ross is so edifying, interesting and likeable, even in his intoxicated gruffness, that my companion and I mourned his premature passing from the stage. The synergy and sympathy between Letts’ written words and Ross’ convincingly crusty and characterful delivery of them is a tribute to both.

By-and-by, of course, we meet the diminutive but doggedly determined, indomitable and often cruel Violet (Weston), played to perfection by Deanna Dunagan. Violet lapses in and out of phase: sometimes as speech-impaired as a stroke victim, but when temporarily relieved of the tyranny of her own addictions as sharp as a tack and liable to draw blood just as effectively. The sweetness of Violet and Beverly’s former love seems to have dissolved in the gulf that has enveloped each, so that they’re now separated by an ocean which can no longer be crossed. Beverly refers to their understanding: he drinks; she medicates. Violet has mouth cancer and is in some pain, while Beverly seems to have sublimated his own with a surfeit of sauce.

Sally Murphy is Ivy Weston, the plain Jane Violet proclaims the prettiest. She’s the bookish-looking one who’s stayed behind, to suffer her mother’s abuse. A dirty job, but someone’s got to do it. But at least her lovelorn days are over, now she’s hooked-up with her cousin, the henpecked 37-year-old Little Charlie, also still imprisoned at home. Why not? There’s always been an understanding between them. They’re cut from the same cloth. Oh yes. But wait, there’s a problem. A skeleton falls unceremoniously out of the closet. All this after the suicidal drowning of Beverly, who just walks out of the house one day, without fanfare. But was it really as simple as that? Murphy and Gary Wilmes veritably epitomise stunted adults, brutally cut down to bonsai-size by maternal destroyers. They wear the despair on their faces. It’s in their every gesture and every day presents the challenge to muster some new defiance.

Little Charles’ mother is the domineering sister of Violet. They are, both, constructed from high-tensile emotional steel. Mattie Fae (Aiken), played by Rondi Reed, might’ve rescued Violet from their father’s claw-hammer attack, with the scars to prove it, but she now hammers her husband and son relentlessly. Reed is a riot and a revelation: at once, terrifying and tumultuously entertaining. Seen as a caricature, the last applies. But seen as a sketch or document of someone’s wife, sister, mother, or aunt, a chilling prospect. Paul Vincemt O’Connor is Charlie, Mattie Fae’s long-suffering husband, who relies on the usual opiates of the masses for much-needed sedation: beer and television. O’Connor inhabits this role in real-deal fashion, while Gary Wilmes is astonishing in the difficult, unglamourous role of Little Charles who, in many ways, is the most interesting and complex character of all, especially in Wilmes’ hands. Even watching him watch imaginary TV is an acting masterclass; his performance, a timeless, world-beating, memorable masterpiece.

Barbara (Fordham), played by Amy Morton, has inherited some of her mother Violet’s iron constitution. She’s separated from her husband, Bill (Jeff Perry), but they arrive at Violet’s together after learning of Beverly’s disappearance. They have a daughter, Jean (Molly Ranson), a pothead who’s growing-up fast. The interactions between all three of these, thanks to both dialogue and carefully-nuanced direction (’08 Tony for Best Direction, by Anna D. Shapiro). There is the confusion and conflation of respect, love, familiarity, contempt, numbness, and so on, that pervades so many relationships in which people grow apart, to occupy an unbearably, irreconcilably torturous purgatory that falls somewhere indefinably between the utmost intimacy and bleak, lonely estrangement. All three, as with the aforementioned are fine, fine actors. The finest.

Karen (Mariann Mayberry) is the youngest of Violet and Beverly’s three daughters: a real estate agent, moved to Miami. Seemingly oblivious to the gravity of her father’s disappearance, she regales her more intellectual eldest sister with the litany of her failed relationships, much to Barbara’s chagrin. Karen confesses a new naive hope and faith in Steve (Gary Cole). Mayberry is the very personification of voluntary, or involuntary, cluelessness; effected with that particular, and particularly confounding, benign, girlish charm that invokes simultaneous impulses to hug and stab drive a stake through her hopeful heart. That’s how she effects Barbara, any rate. Steve, meanwhile, in getting 15-year-old Jean stoned so as to get his paws on her, isn’t the ideal prospective husband, but a consummate sleazebag.

I’ve left out the sheriff, Deon (Troy West), who was also well-cast to play the reserved, polite, highschool sweetheart of Barbara, quietly and patiently waiting in the wings, for his chance with her. West did, however, seem very nervous (who could blame him, given opening night in Sydney’s pre-eminent theatre?) to the point of tremors. My heart went out to him.

But it would be wrong and unbalanced to attribute all the credit and devote all the accolades to the performers. That all the actors are SO good is testament to the brilliance of director, Shapiro. Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design is such a relief from sets that try hard to outdo (through supposed ‘edginess’ or other pseudo avant-garde eccentricities) and end up looking just that: try-hard. It pains me to draw it, but the oh-so-obvious contrast between sets for STC’s recent production of Long Day’s Journey and this is stark. This is a set that has to be seen to be believed: an aesthetic and technical marvel, surely but of infinitely greater importance is the fact it’s so effective in drawing us, immediately, into the drama.

Ann G. (only Americans go for this initialisation caper, eh?) Wrightson’s lighting design is practically invisible; which is the highest compliment in my lexicon to pay to lighting design and designers. Perfection. On a par is Richard Woodbury’s sound. Listen out for Clapton (Eric, not Dick) on the stereogram and the stylus skating across the vinyl, for example. David Singer’s composition, a series of jazz-oriented interludes to separate scenes, is quintessentially modern Americana, edifying for the soul and distinctly easy on the ears. In bringing these things to seamless realisation I can at last laud some Aussies, too: STC production manager Annie Eves-Boland; her assistant Sarah Smith; ST’s tech manager Kevin Sigley; mechanist Steve Mason; flyman Tarn Mott; sparky Andrew Tompkins; lighting op Sophie Kurylowicz; head of sound Big Kev White. It mightn’t make exciting reading, but such people can make or break a production and rarely get a look-in or shout-out. Likewise, it would be remiss not to pay homage to STC’s artistic director, Catedrew, for honouring us with such a play. If we’re going to import theatre and get away with it, it needs to be of this rare calibre.

Notwithstanding superlative performances and production values, at the end of the day the real star is Letts. There are no frills, ornaments or ‘look at me!’ affectations to be heard or seen. Every single line goes somewhere; builds, reveals, flags or promises something. Some will stop you dead in your tracks: not for their clever contrivance, but truth-telling distillation. Letts, and Steppenwolf at large are, deservedly, living legends.

Some plays are difficult to review. Sometimes, it’s hard to know what they’re even on about. Often, someone, or something, will draw the right kind of attention, for the right reasons, while someone, or something else will almost negate that. Once in a blue moon, if then, a play and production comes along that restores one’s faith in the future of literature and theatre. A play that makes a critic’s fraught job easy-peasy. August: Osage County is like a southerly buster at the end of a long, hot, humid summer’s day. As the play tells us to begin with, life is long. So is the play, at over three hours. But, like life, it’s all over before you realise it. More’s the pity. Why, oh why, couldn’t this have been an Australian play?

Curtain Call rating: A+

The details: August: Osage County plays the Sydney Theatre until September 25. Tickets via the STC website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey