It’s Getting Hot in Here
Review of August: Stratení v Oklahome, produced by the Slovak National Theatre
Photo: Filip Vančo, snd.sk
On September 23, 2011, the Slovak National Theatre introduced a play by noted American playwright Tracy Letts, August: stratení v Oklahome (August: Osage County in English). In 2007 the play premiered in the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and later it transferred to Broadway. It received a Tony Award for Best Play and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2008.
The play is set on the plains of Oklahoma, in an old crumbling house of the Weston family – namely Violet and Beverly Weston, and their three daughters Barbara, Ivy and Karen. There is nothing to do on the stifling hot wide prairies, so each of them has their own way to face the world. Beverly Weston is an alcoholic, who used to be a good poet and lecturer at the University of Oklahoma. His wife Violet is a drug addict suffering from mouth cancer, who can’t live without painkillers. Barbara and Karen left their home town a long time ago, so the only one staying with the parents is Ivy. She is a mousy, submissive and tedious woman, who admires her father and tries to be like him (therefore, she works in a university library) and is afraid of her strong mother, who constantly humiliates and underestimates her. One day Beverly suddenly disappears. In a few days, the whole Weston family meets together in the house, including Barbara’s husband Bill and daughter Jean, Violet’s younger sister, Mattie Fae, with her husband Charlie and their son Little Charles, and Karen’s fiancé Steven. In the middle of the family chaos is a young Native American girl, Johanna, who was hired by Beverly to help in the house and satisfy especially Mrs. Weston’s needs. Each one of the characters brings their little big problems into the enclosed space of the house and seems to be totally unconcerned about their father’s disappearance. In the Oklahoma desert, where there’s nowhere to escape, old secrets come to light. How will they affect the individual family members?
The play portrays the disintegration of modern American family: parents fighting over nothing, ungrateful daughters caring only about themselves… A classic picture. Yet the picture may seem to be too full. The play introduces too many themes: a breakdown of communication between family members, alcoholism, drug addiction, racism, divorce, paedophilia and even incest. As a result, the spectator can get an impression of incompleteness and shallowness.
The Slovak production focuses primarily on capturing the individuality of the characters, not so much on delivering an artistic testimony on the era under discussion. Director Peter Mikulík concentrated on giving a detailed picture of individual relationships. Despite the fact that the actors are dominant, they are limited by the static scene that doesn’t offer too many possibilities for them.
In spite of this, I have never been disappointed by any show in the Slovak National Theatre, and this one is not an exception. Half of our elite actors meet on stage and pull the audience into a story full of turnovers and unexpected situations. And when all mysteries are almost solved, in the atmosphere created, you almost wish that something terrible happens again so that the story gets tangled up even more. However static the scene is, the actors’ performances keep you tense in the expectation of something unpredictable.
The whole play is dominated by the exquisite Emília Vášaryová. Her character of Violet Weston oscillates between clear moments and absolute insanity, between tragicomedy, cruelty and hysteria. Violet is not a bad person; she is just so desperate with her life that she constantly torments her family with her cruel insane talk. Another exceptional performance is that of Diana Mórová as the eldest daughter Barbara. She is believed to be the strong one in the family and everybody expects her to find a solution to any problem. In fact, she can’t. She is divorcing her adulterous husband and trying to raise her fourteen-year-old daughter addicted to marihuana. Mórová plays Barbara with a dose of hysteria so typical of her, but not completely unpleasant to the spectator’s eyes and ears. On the other hand, Monika Hilmerová, playing Barbara’s younger sister Karen, and Jozef Vajda in the role of Karen’s fiancé Steven sometimes slide into soap opera-like manners in their dialogues. Another character that catches the audience’s interest is that of Ivy, performed by Ingrid Timková, who manages to give expression to all aspects of her character. At the beginning she emphasizes the submissiveness and timidity of Ivy’s personality, but later on she enriches her character with unexpected impulsiveness and eagerness to escape the family hell and social conventions.
Comedy and drama, sarcasm and sincerity, fear and relief… All of these at once, in an artistic package. August: stratení v Oklahome is not a relaxing play. In order to understand the final idea about love and relationships between parents and children, you have to think a lot. What should things be like and where are the lines you shouldn’t cross? Go to SND, maybe you will find out.