It was poet T.S. Eliot who said April is the cruellest month, but American dramatist Tracy Letts makes a pretty good case that August is just as vicious, if not more.
His claim is outlined in his horrifyingly humorous, and humorously horrifying, August: Osage County, which opened Thursday night at the RMTC Warehouse. The 2008 Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play opens serenely with aging poet Beverly Weston wearily quoting Eliot -- "life is very long" -- a comment that foreshadows the endless infighting of clan members and also makes a wry comment on the fact that the family drama is almost three-and-a-half hours long. The former is so entertaining that the latter is a non-concern.
The title sets the scene in sweltering small-town Oklahoma and glibly recalls a string of great American classics about shattered families. It could be renamed Long Day's Journey With Virginia Woolf on a Hot Tin Roof for the profane frankness with which the brood's alcoholism, drug addiction, incest and suicide is revealed.
What stands out is the gleeful nastiness on display that has the audience gasping, then guffawing at the way the Westons tear into each other. August makes its audience shameless voyeurs, leaving spectators relieved their own family problems are so inconsequential.
Beverly, the alcoholic Weston patriarch played by Frank Adamson, delivers his opening soliloquy, laying out the house rules for the new housekeeper: "My wife takes pills and I drink." Then he disappears without explanation, with the mystery drawing home his three daughters, their partners and children to comfort the malignant matriarch, Violet.
She is one of the most monstrous mothers to come along since O'Neill's Mary Tyrone and TV's Livia Soprano, the Mob mom who attempted to whack son Tony. She is a canker in her middle-aged girls' lives, heard cursing before she appears onstage. The playwright gets a big laugh when he reveals that she has cancer of the mouth, both literally and metaphorically.
Martha Henry, the grande dame of Canadian theatre, is stunning as the venomous Violet, a razor-tongued rattler with an unerring instinct for detecting weakness. The pill-popper periodically disappears in a drug-induced haze, dancing appealingly to a Eric Clapton song at one point, before her bile returns.
All her loved ones are warily gathering in her large house (the many rooms are jammed on the Warehouse stage by set designer Brian Perchaluk in a manner not pretty but practical). Violet belittles stay-at-home daughter Ivy for her sexless clothing and continued singlehood. She needles her sister's husband, Charlie, before oldest daughter Barb arrives to take charge.
When the girls begin to set the family table, it's hard not to drool at the prospect of the savage smackdown surely on the menu. Letts does not disappoint -- a highlight scene sees Henry's Violet dispensing blunt-force trauma with scary ease. Even the attempt at simple civility fails, as Charlie's halting saying of grace rambles nowhere. Family newcomers are not exempt, as youngest daughter Karen's Floridian fiancé is skewered as a serial husband and Nazi descendent. Of course, a brawl ensues between Violet and Barb, who is a Violet in waiting.
With the help of director Ann Hodges, the cast performs a master class in ensemble acting. Each character/actor gets a moment to shine, but Sharon Bajer (Barb) in particular has never been better. When you can command attention with Henry on stage, you have arrived at a career milestone.
Among the co-stars, the work of David Warburton as the slow-burning Charlie is very heartfelt. Miriam Smith as Ivy and Robert Glen Thompson as the nebbish Little Charles bring a hint of love to August, though it's ruthlessly crushed. Samantha Hill easily sells being hoodie-wearing 14-year-old Jean, whose pot-smoking does not bode well for another generation of Westons.
August is not perfect -- the physical fight almost crosses the line into farce -- but Letts takes a hard shot at the supposed greatest generation represented by Violet and Beverly. The dysfunctional family is a staple of the American stage and Letts has written a worthy addition to the genre.
August: Osage County
To March 24
Tickets: $19-$42 at 942-6537 or www.mtc.mb.ca
Four and a half stars out of five 1Ñ2