Them good old family blues

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Henry James once said that the two most beautiful words in the English language were “summer afternoon”. For me they are “no interval”. The prospect of tucking in to my after-curtain meal while other theatregoers are still only halfway through Wicked or Phantom is reason enough to make me, I admit, overvalue 90-minute shows.

The converse of this principle, however, is that when a long play is absorbing I feel I could remain in the theatre until even the wee-hour bars have shuttered. This is a rare experience: in 2007, I have had the pleasure only with Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia in New York; with Maxim Gorky’s Philistines in London; and, now, with Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County in another theatre capital: Chicago.

As he showed a few years ago with his unclassifiable play Bug, Letts by some alchemy is able to illustrate an emotional principle that among his contemporaries only Martin McDonagh achieves fully: the bleaker the story, the more entertaining it becomes.

Letts’ new drama charts the disintegration of the Weston family, who live in present-day Oklahoma. In a prologue, the Westons’ patriarch, portrayed by the playwright’s real-life father Dennis Letts, announces: “My wife takes pills and I drink.” Such addictions are not the only reason August: Osage County has drawn comparison with canonic dramas such as Long Day’s Journey into Night and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Like the O’Neill and the Albee, the Letts provides American theatre with an unforgettable, drug-addled older woman: Mrs Violet Weston. Played with uproarious dry humour by Deanna Dunagan, Violet rips into the family – her shy daughter, Ivy; her vulgar sister, Mattie Fae; her pusillanimous husband, Charlie; her lazy son, Charlie – with resolutely unsentimental verve.

The director Anna Shapiro has moulded Steppenwolf’s ensemble with such power and Letts has turned a dysfunctional-family potboiler into something so memorable that I feel churlish in saying that the evening doesn’t quite achieve greatness. August: Osage County doesn’t induce an awareness that what might be occurring to the Westons offstage is as resonant and engaging as what’s happening to them on-stage. But it’s the most satisfying new American play I’ve seen in quite a while, and I look forward to watching it again when it moves – as it must! – to Broadway.

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