Three hours of Oklahoman family drama

We should acknowledge, right up front, that the Art Club Theatre’s production of August: Osage County is about three hours and 15 minutes long. And that was on opening night, when performers tend to rush things. There are two intermissions.

That’s a lot to ask of the average theatre-goer. The phlegmy septuagenarian sitting next to me mercifully fell asleep during the second act, sparing his fellow audience members his sniffles and coughs.

A dysfunctional, Faulknerian Southern family drama, the play tells the story of the Weston family as they return to their ancestral home near Pawhuska, Oklahoma to sort out the disappearance of the alcoholic family patriarch. His pill-popping, misanthropic wife chides and berates each new family member as they come through the door. The play becomes a struggle for scarce power among the elderly couple’s three daughters and associated hangers-on. It’s a little of The Family Stone and a lot of Rachel Getting Married.

Wendy Noel, Nora McLellan, Karin Konoval in August: Osage County. Photo by David Cooper.

Playwright Tracy Letts was an actor first, and this is an actor’s play. Several leads get long, meandering monologues, and the playwright works hard to thrust actors into sometimes-forced scenes of conflict. There’s humour, though it feels weary, like your grandpa’s jokes.

I was disappointed by the play’s directorial decision. Ted Roberts’s set worked as a cross-section of the family home, like a flayed-open frog on a lab desk. However, Janet Wright rarely put the actors on the levels above the stage floor. We also needed more information from the set about the wealth of the homeowners–if there were nuances that revealed this, I missed them.

Finally, for a realistic set and lighting scheme, the sound design was surprisingly absent. It seemed like an odd choice not to provide some atmospheric sounds–vehicles arriving, car doors opening and closing, crickets as night falls–to give the audience more information about where the play was occurring.

Did August: Osage County hold our attention? I found myself looking at my watch in the latter half of the show, and was very ready for the bows when they finally came. It felt like a very 20th century play–entirely free of new or fresh ideas. I’d much rather watch the equally-long and uneven Tear the Curtain. That show took risks.

August: Osage County continues through February 27. Go here for tickets.

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