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Playing unhappy families

After winning the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for drama and creating a huge hype on Broadway and Hollywood, Tracy Letts’ tragic comedy August: Osage County now hits the German stage for the first time as "Eine Familie". See it at Theater am Kurfürstendamm.

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Photo by Katarina Ivanisevic

After winning the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for drama and creating a huge hype on Broadway and Hollywood, Tracy Letts’ tragic comedy August: Osage County now hits the German stage for the first time as Eine Familie – a production by Santinis and Austro-Israeli director Ilan Ronen – which delves into the dysfunctions and the very uncomfortable truths of the Weston family of Oklahoma.

As the curtain draws, we see Beverly Weston, the patriarch of the family as portrayed by Felix von Manteuffel. He is a comical caricature of a once-successful poet turned self-confessed alcoholic, slouched in a scraggly dressing gown, surrounded in a clutter of books and nursing a bottomless whiskey. He is interviewing a young Native American girl – Johnna, as played by Eva Bay – about a position as a cook and carer for his cancerous and drug-addled wife Violet, who soon comes floating down the stairs in a cloud of cigarette smoke and is clearly spaced-out on the pills she’s hooked on. As Beverly (mis)quotes T. S. Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men; “Life is too long”, we become aware that although slovenly and self-destructive, Beverly is also conscious of his and his wife’s own decay, thus hiring Johnna could be seen as pre-emptive of his disappearance in the following scene.

Johnna’s characterisation is very much the opposite of the Weston couple, as she is well-dressed, calm and rational throughout. This contrast between the Native American girl (who is reminded of this often through Violet only addressing her as the “Red Indian”) and the Westons is constant throughout the shocking family drama which unfolds over the next three hours, and could be seen to symbolise the collapse of the ideal contemporary American family against the stability of the preceding Native American societies. After Bev’s disappearance, the three Weston daughters and their partners gather at the family home to console Violet – as played perfectly by Ursula Karusseit – who is sometimes so high that she’s oblivious to what’s happening. Dancing to Eric Clapton whilst the Sheriff brings the news of Bev’s death is one perfect example of this. At other times, Violet is an emotional wreck, grieving for her lost husband and trying to escape the reality with pills. “It was wonderful, now it’s over”. The matriarch not only demands sympathy from the audience but also entertains throughout, with her hilariously foul mouth and unpredictable malice which results in a humorous yet bleakly depressing picture of a troubled, Havisham-on-drugs type-character.

As the family spend time together, uncomfortable truths are pulled out from under the carpet. After speaking about Bev’s will at his own wake dinner, Violet starts trash-talking family members with every swearword and taboo under the sun. Incest and secretly broken marriages come flooding out in a wildly funny and dramatic scene around the table, which culminates with Barbara – the oldest daughter of the three – dragging her mother by the hair in an effort to take away her pills. Again, the mix between comedy and tragedy is perfectly balanced by the cast under Ronen. The audience also get their fair share of theatrical grandeur when Steve – the fiancé of Karen, the youngest Weston daughter – is caught sexually harassing Jean, Barbara’s daughter. In this scene, the theatre’s rotating stage allows Ronen to orchestrate an impressive display of dramatic theatre as a frying-pan-wielding Johnna chases Steve around the three-storey set under the eerie moon-like lighting, whilst the ominous music jumps with each whack on Steve’s head.

August: Osage County is seen to be a play which represents the failure of American idealism with regards to the paradigm of the ideal family, and also addresses the shaky historical relationship between the Caucasian Oklahomans and the Native Americans. Ilan Ronen and has made this accessible to the German audience without falling into a trap of belittling Letts’ metaphors by Germanising the content of the script. The play is still set in Oklahoma – the name of the state being derived from the Choctaw words “okla” and “humma”, literally “red people”, thus proving to be vital in carrying its original political messages despite the translation. Ronen and Santinis’ production is a real entertainer; as the cast fall out of their roles, sympathy for the characters and their individual and intertwining ordeals lingers on long after the curtain sets, as well as the sharp and often unrepeatable jokes sticking in the mind to arouse a few chuckles later. Overall, a truly exciting and entertaining piece.

Eine Familie: Jan 27, 20:00, Jan 28, 16:00 and 20:00, Jan 29-31, 20:00, Feb 1, 18:00, Feb 3-7, 20:00, Feb 8, 18:00, Feb 10-13, 20:00, Apr 14-18, 20:00, Apr 19, 18:00, Apr 21, 20:00, Apr 22, 16:00 and 20:00, Apr 23-25, 20:00, Apr 26, 18:00, Apr 28-May 2, 20:00, May 3, 18:00 | Theater am Kurfürstendamm, Kurfürstendamm 206/209, Charlottenburg, U-Bhf Uhlandstr.