Monday, 27 October 2014

August: Osage County, Free Rain, Courtyard Studio

An epic-length and sized story of one Oklahoma family gathered together in the face of a crisis, "August: Osage County" has been an international sensation since it premiered in Chicago in 2007. The opening line is a T.S. Eliot quote, "Life is very long", and indeed, at over three hours, a fair chunk of the richness and complexity of life gets included. Combining jet-black comedy, tragedy, secrets revealed, searing confrontations and heartbreaking pathos, Tracy Letts has provided a play that's full of interest both to performers and to audience.

Free Rain's production fulfills much of that interest. The choice of the small courtyard studio does mean an intimacy in the playing, at the expense of one or two more epic moments  (in particular, the idea that this is a family home that most of the family has abandoned disappears a bit when there isn't a lot of empty space around those remaining; and only one window has to cover for all the windows that have been blocked off elswhere in the house). But sightlines are generally well preserved (only once did a key character disappear out of view, during the opening conversation in Act Three between the three sisters), which is not always the case when the Courtyard is set to play longways (I've often seen productions where there doesn't appear to be any good points for the audience to sit, whereas here if you're reasonably central you're covered).

The cast is, pretty uniformly, superlative. David Bennett as the patriach whose departure precipitates the action, is firmly memorable, wise and regretful. Karen Vickery as the matriach is utterly extrordinary as the matriach, turning from incoherently stoned to brutally focussed on a dime (first seen when she viciously spurts forth with "why don't you fuck a dead sow's ass" and getting increasingly unpleasant and unpredictable from there). Andrea Close as the oldest daughter is similarly rich, traversing vast realms of emotion from bitter anger to worn-out exhaustion to righteous fury (her declaration at the end of Act Two "I'M RUNNING THINGS NOW!" is an order that must be listened to). As her husband, Jim Adamik is calming, witty and finally resigned and accepting (their final scene together in particular is heartbreaking). As middle daughter Ivy, Lainie Hart plays both the tension as she attempts to keep a series of secrets from her family, and the ease she feels when she doesn't have to hide anything about herself. Youngest daughter Karen as played by Rose Braybook, practices an extended avoidance of any uncomfortable realities, even as the worst appear in front of her. Paul Jackson as her fiance pretty much IS the worst reality that could appear in front of her - he's odiously sleazy and unpleasant.

Outside the immediate family, Liz Bradley is staunch and eventually just as clearly in denial as aunt Mattie Fae. Michael Sparks brings midwest-charm and a clear strong sense of certainty to her husband Charlie. Ethan Gibson is, frankly, too young to be realistically 37 as the script repeatedly insists he is, but he invests both in Little Charles' fragility and in the gentle warmth that exists between him and his secret partner. Amy Campbell, similarly, doesn't quite look young enough to be 14 but certainly has the prickliness and the know-it-all cynicism down pat. Linda Chen is a solid, frequently silent presence as the maid Johnna, and Brian Kavanaugh's Sherrif Gilbeau is warm and decent.

In pretty much every case you get a sense of these characters as people with long histories before and after their time on stage.  Pretty much every character who leaves the house seems likely to never come back but living with the revalations that have happened during the action onstage seems likely to be a long and painful process, and we're fortunate that in this productions the characters feel so fully rounded and real that you can't help wonder and worry about these poor damaged and damaging people.

Cate Clelland as director has done a stirling job in getting a solid cast united in a dramatically rich evening that feels deep enough for your mind to swim in for days later. When something this good is on Canberra stages, you are urged to go. Go now.

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