August: Osage County

Maidment Theatre, Auckland

04/09/2010 - 25/09/2010

Production Details

Greed, mistrust, anger, resentment. How’s that for a set of family values? 


Hot from taking America by storm and grand slamming Broadway’s theatre awards, Tracy Letts’ epic tragicomedy about family, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, makes its eagerly anticipated New Zealand premier at the Maidment Theatre on September 2.


This richly entertaining family drama juggles the hilarious, the poignant and the appalling on a scale seldom seen in New Zealand. With a superb cast of 13 actors, three explosive acts and enough revelations to power several soap operas, AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY raises the bar for contemporary drama and gives audiences something to sink their teeth into after a long and lean winter.


With cutting insight and brilliant humor, Letts paints a vivid portrait of a Midwestern family confronting its secrets and lies and the lacerating tongue of their pill-popping mother.


“a deep and highly entertaining work, consistently rich, raw and intense, filled with viciousness and vicious wit.” Variety


Hailed by the New York Times as “Flat-out, no asterisks and without qualifications, the most exciting American play Broadway has seen in years,” AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY scooped the Tony Awards as well as winning  the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Best Play. It played 648 performances and 18 previews on Broadway surpassing the runs of recent hit shows MASTER CLASS, THE REAL THING, and DOUBT, to become one of the longest running plays in Broadway history.


Letts himself was instantly feted by the media as the youngest and newest member of American drama’s extended, dysfunctional family and the natural heir to Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Edward Albee and Eugene O’Neill.


“hugely entertaining! A ripsnorter full of blistering, funny dialogue, acid-etched characterizations and scenes of no-holds-barred emotional combat.” New York Times


Auckland Theatre Company’s production will be directed by the Company’s Artistic Director Colin MColl.


Late summer heat is nothing compared to the swelter inside the Westons’ home in rural Oklahoma, where Violet (Jennifer Ludlam), the bitter, drug addicted matriarch at the centre of the family web, keeps the temperature cranked. When their patriarch, the dissipated professor-cum-poet Beverly (Stuart Devenie) vanishes, the Weston clan reluctantly return to their home in Osage County to manage the crisis.


Each character and performer gets a chance to shine in this very juicy play. Violet’s eldest daughter and favorite, Barb (Jennifer Ward-Lealand), struggles to stay in charge; her teen daughter, Jean (Elizabeth McMenamin), is growing up a little too fast, and her husband, Bill (Alistair Browning), has abandoned ship for a younger woman. Youngest sister Karen (Andi Crown) arrives with an overload of neediness and a disturbingly slick fiance (Peter Daube). Only middle sister Ivy (Hera Dunleavy) has stayed here all along to be beaten down by Violet’s incessant abuse, but she has a secret plan to bolt – and a secret lover to boot. Aunt Mattie Fae (Alison Quigan) busybodies everyone to death, particularly her hapless son, Little Charles (Gareth Reeves), much to the slow-burning consternation of husband Charlie (Andrew Grainger).


Tracy Letts is the author of KILLER JOE, BUG and MAN FROM NEBRASKA, which was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. He is a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, where AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY premiered. His latest play is SUPERIOR DONUTS.


Having played all over the world from Chicago to Broadway to London and Sydney its Auckland’s turn next. This is the play not to miss this year.

Tickets are available from
Maidment Theatre 09 308 2383 or
Full season,
Sept 2-3 (previews),
Sept 4-25 (season).
Tickets from $25 to $57.

Beverly Weston            Stuart Devenie
Violet Weston               Jennifer Ludlam
Barbara Fordham        Jenifer Ward-Lealand
Ivy Weston                     Hera Dunleavy
Karen Weston               Andi Crown
Bill Fordham                 Alistair Browning
Jean Fordham              Elizabeth McManamin
Steve Heidebrecht       Peter Daube
Mattie Fae Aiken           Alison Quigan
Charlie Aiken                Andrew Grainger
Little Charles                Gareth Reeves
Johnna Monevata         Nancy Brunning
Sheriff Deon Gilbeau   Kevin Keys

NIC SMILLIE / Costume Designer
PHILLIP DEXTER MSC / Lighting Designer
EDEN MULHOLLAND / Sound Designer 

One helluva ride

Review by John Smythe 10th Sep 2010

I love a good allegory. But part way through August: Osage County I stop looking for it. There is so much happening as the Weston family deconstructs itself I cannot help but get drawn into the dirty washing and deep rinse cycles of their soap-opera … Then suddenly spun high and dry, the allegory comes clean, prompting much discussion afterwards. I love a play that does that to you.

All this is based on just one viewing so I’m hoping to spark a discussion here, not least from those who have lived with the work for some weeks (although I know you’ll say it’s up to us to make of it what we will – even so, your thoughts and feelings are welcome even if you wait to the end of the season).

First, consider the title.
August: (n) the 8th month, end of the northern summer, just before the fall; (adj) venerable, dignified, inspiring respect … ‘Yeah right’, as it turns out. Adjectival irony?
Osage County: Oklahoma, America’s mid-west, the Plains, home of the Weston family, so hot and dry even tropical parakeets die from the heat; the dead heart of the USA. “What were the settlers thinking?” the pill-popping matriarch wants to know. “We fucked the Indians for this?”

Lori Leigh’s excellent essay (one of six plus a poem in the programme), ‘Trail of Tears’, speaks of President Jackson’s 1830 Indian Removal Act and the driving out of the Cheyenne, a Plains Indian tribe moved to a reservation in Oklahoma. “To this day the Cheyenne are still trying to re-acquire their stolen lands.” Shades of Fortinbras in Shakespeare’s Hamlet?

The silent observer of the Weston’s world – its nucleus imploding as the next generation explodes to other states – is Johnna Monevata, played with undemonstrative humanity, compassion and dignity by Nancy Brunning. A Cheyenne woman who has lost all her family and has no home, she needs the house-keeper work being offered by father figure Beverly Weston in the opening scene. (There is a danger Johnna could reek of ‘the noble savage’ or the happy-go-lucky housekeeper cliché usually played by African Americans, but Brunning and director Colin McColl ensure she rises well above that.)

An academic whose star burned briefly 40-something years ago with a book of poems, Beverly’s main occupation now is drinking whisky and smoking: a lugubrious cameo from Stuart Devenie. “If you going to live here,” he tells Johnna, “I want you to live here.” Significant? Prescient?

He introduces his wife, Violet, whose life is now dedicated to taking pills, and he disappears. Goes AWOL. A Greek god leaving the dysfunctional mortals to self-destruct?

He leaves Johnna with a book of T S Eliot poems – and the play ends (3½ hours later) with an eerie rendition of “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper,” as she sits at the set’s highest peak with Violet’s comatose head in her lap: a shrunken Violet? Jennifer Ludlam inhabits this epic role from sadly seedy and semi-coherent to busting out in full sardonic bloom, plucking at multiple variations of savagery and vulnerability in between. A superb performance.

But it’s not the world, just the Weston world that has ended (clearly allegorical when it’s put that way). With three daughters and no sons, the family name will fade. And it’s the mid-west and all it stands for that has been abandoned. Or has it?

“Everyone lives somewhere in the middle,” says the middle daughter, Karen, towards the end, by way of claiming no-one is totally good or totally bad. But then she – played with full-on Florida zest by Andi Crown – is wilfully blind to the moral corruption of her fiancé Steve Heidebrecht, who works in homeland security. Peter Daube nails the role with well-oiled charm, the better to grease the sleaze. (Heidebrecht: is that a name to conjure with? Some hidden Brechtian element, perhaps? He certainly alienates.)

Two of the three sisters have been brought back by their father’s disappearance while the youngest, Ivy, has never left. Clinging Ivy? Poison Ivy? Take your pick. Hera Dunleavy is ideal casting as the trapped renegade, with short cut hair, an aversion to skirts and harbouring the secret she sees as her ticket to freedom in New York. She is the one most likely to break the rules conventions except for the one that confronts her at the end. It would be a spoiler to reveal more; suffice to say the sins of both mothers and fathers can be visited on their sons and daughters.

The oldest sister, Barbara, has established her family home in Boulder, Colorado (at the Rocky Mountain end of the Great Plains), having married a psychology professor, Bill Fordham, and had a daughter, Jean. And now their marriage is on the rocks: Bill has left Barb for a younger model (Cindy, one of his students). Yes, that old cliché; the play’s full of them. But somehow, in this particular mix, it doesn’t matter because middle America is riddled with clichés and that’s part of what playwright Tracy Letts is exposing as he peels back the onion.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand is stunningly good as Barb, composed in her capacity to cope for the sake of Jean, acerbic in expressing her hurt, blunt in confronting reality, ruthless in her desire to get Violet off the pills and finally maddening yet poignant in her own ‘my mother myself’ fall from grace.

The sisters – the daughters – have all been a disappointment, according to Violet, given what she and Beverly went through to drag themselves up from their own horrific beginnings to get educated and provide a good home and every opportunity for their children, who have taken it all for granted and resigned themselves to insignificant lives with mundane futures.  

Alistair Browning wields the weapon of Bill’s self-justifying psychobabble with maddening aplomb while Elizabeth McMenamin is mesmerising as the out-for-experience, danger-to-herself Jean; a product of all that has gone before with who-knows-what ahead of her. Her true-to-each-moment performance transcends all ‘noughties teenager’ sterotypes.

Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae, lives an hour and a half away with her husband Charlie Aiken – they’re in the poultry business – and dogs that need to be fed. And they have a son, Little Charles, who lives elsewhere, is also a disappointment to his mother and also has a secret escape plan (“go east, young man,” being the opposite of how the west was won).  

Alison Quigan’s Maddie Fae is formidable and perfectly pitched at every turn. Andrew Grainger is no slouch as the slouching, beer-drinking Charlie either. And Gareth Reeves is compellingly true as the shut down Aiken son, except when he’s with Cousin Ivy. Do we see hope in the next generation? If only …

Barbara’s high school prom date, now Sheriff Deon Gilbeau, completes the cast. Kevin Keys fulfils the requirements of the role well, which is to characterise a sane and decent America amid the Weston maelstrom, not least when he forbears to exploit a less-than-in-control Barb.

There are at least two other memorable moments when something not happening is just as dramatic as an action taken. When Beverly tells Johnna his name, he waits for the inevitable comment and she says nothing, which plants a seed of intrigue. Is it because she’s mature and wise or because she’ll do nothing to risk getting the job? Later, when Johnna takes to Steve with a baking pan, and he and Jean protect themselves with misinformation to those who come running, the family doesn’t turn on the servant and make her a scapegoat. Could it be they are self-aware or do they just know they couldn’t cope without her?

It sure is one helluva ride through August: Osage County. It’s tempting to describe it as and extract of essences from Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe and Chekhov’s The Three Sisters with seasonings from Christina Crawford’s Mommy Dearest and Nancy Friday’s My Mother Myself, not to mention Boris Vian’s The Empire Builders

But that’s just to say Tracy Letts has followed great forbears in capturing the state of his nation in the 21st century. And his play will endure because it has great roles for excellent actors.

Colin McColl and his team have not just replicated the original production, either.Everything is stripped to its essence. The palatial naturalistic set has given way to Robin Rawstorne’s angular steep-raked floors and a masked overhanging window represents the shades that have been taped for two years or so to exclude the natural cycles of night and day. And I’m told the script suggests Johnna is more mumsy and sentimental than Brunning’s mostly self-contained and very compelling interpretation.

Enough from me: go see for yourself.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


John Smythe September 11th, 2010

Very happy to be corrected thanks. I thought I was so clever noticing that the middle daughter had the ‘middle’ theory. But now it makes even more sense that the middle daughter stayed in the mid-west.   

LinemanForTheCounty September 10th, 2010

I hate to be finicky John but I think Karen's the youngest daughter and Ivy the middle. I know it seems the other way because Ivy's the stay at home and seems younger in character. But in the script I have it lists Ivy as 44 and Karen as 40.

I only mention it because I was interested when I saw it as to why Tracy Letts made that choice.

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Intoxicating family cocktail

Review by Paul Simei-Barton 06th Sep 2010

Suicide, sex abuse, drugs: dysfunctional clan gets to deal with all modern ills 

Touted as the future of American theatre, Tracy Letts’ play has been an international sensation since its Chicago opening in 2007. It arrives on the Auckland stage with an enormous burden of expectation but more than lives up to the hype with a production that is hugely entertaining and emotionally riveting.

With tales of suicide, substance abuse, adultery, incest and paedophilia August: Osage County serves up a wildly intoxicating cocktail. The lurid story elements you would expect from an American talk show or daytime soap are shaken together with the kind of character-driven comedy you get from a sharply scripted sitcom. This dangerously volatile concoction is somehow imbued with a deeply poetic sense of desolation. [More]
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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The impassioned rage of foiled love

Review by Nik Smythe 05th Sep 2010

Colin McColl’s visionary direction of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer prize winning script, as performed by his stellar cast in this NZ debut, carries us through three and a quarter hours of harrowing comedic drama to a standing ovation and leaves the audience buzzing with excitement. 

The story is set, as the title suggests, in Osage County on the plains of Oklahoma, during the hottest month of the year. It tells the tragic unfolding of an alienated family, who are reunited for the first time in very long while when aging patriarch Beverly Weston (Stuart Devenie) secretly heads off fishing and doesn’t return. 

His estranged wife Violet (Jennifer Ludlum) is quite the histrionic agitator, to put it mildly. Her sister and three daughters clearly have their own dark memories, but Violet’s cynical vitriol takes centre stage through it all. Not that she’s without humour; she’s constantly cracking sardonic jokes and often shows glimpses of true compassion when not on one of her frequent belligerent medication-induced benders. 

This example illustrates the most impressive quality of the six men and seven women who inhabit Letts’ masterful epic: the complex humanity that is quickly evident within a few minutes of encountering each character. It’s comparatively easy to make a character hard, horrific, volatile, larger than life… What August: Osage County achieves is to show us thirteen characters we can care about (with the possible exception of Peter Daube’s creepy Steve Heidelbrecht), each wielding their own array of self-importance, empathy, anger, tenderness, pain and joy. 

Not all the humour is derisive, and amid all the self-loathing and bitter resentments there’s a strong sense that these people really love each other and yearn to express it but are ultimately foiled by circumstances beyond their control, of their own devising. 

Each role has been impeccably cast to deliver a rich, moving powerhouse of character drama. Some key violent episodes did in fact seem somewhat staged – virtually my single complaint of the entire production – but the impassioned rage behind it is totally credible. 

While the action is firmly, categorically even, set in the heart of the Middle American Plains, the promotional images’ ostentatious mansion setting has been reinterpreted by set designer Robin Rawstorne into a stark abstraction. The floor slopes up behind the sparsely furnished upstage, and also up to the right, the gap between serving as an entrance/exit way. Behind them a conspicuously roughly taped-up paper skylight confirms my suspicion that we are observing a psychological locale rather than an actual one. 

The effect of this remarkable set, masterfully lit by Philip Dexter, is to remove a degree of disconnection between them, the self-made pseudo-aristocratic Middle American family, and us, the middle-class Auckland theatre-going public. They may be half a sphere away where their August is our February, but when the shit hits the fan at the dinner table the ensuing emotionally charged fiasco is undoubtedly familiar to a sizable cross-section of the audience.

Among the rest of the wholly commendable creative and production crew, Eden Mulholland’s haunting acoustic bass and slide guitar soundtrack stands out as a major component in evoking the space and ethereal tension that envelops the story and its location. 

According to the highly informative programme accessory, replete with intriguing reading, it’s allegorical to the mess the Bush administration put Middle America into. That may well be so, but it’s not something we’re forced to contemplate as we view the unravelling of a family unit who, in the face of this opportunity to reunite and repair their damaged relationships, seem nonetheless destined to drive the wedge even deeper until they disintegrate completely.

August: Osage County is destined to be compared with other iconic classics by Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepherd, Arthur Miller and the like, mainly for its sociological resonance. If you had the fortune to experience 2008’s Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, also directed by Colin McColl with a number of the same cast and crew, then this is kind of like that on steroids, ramped up to our time. 
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.


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