Desperation, desire & cruelty in the ferocious, electric, heart-breaking A Streetcar Named Desire

Amy Rutherford and Mac Fyfe. Set design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Rachel Forbes. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Soulpepper sets the stage on fire with a slow burn of desperation, desire and cruelty in its ferocious, electric, heart-breaking production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by AD Weyni Mengesha, assisted by Tanya Rintoul, and running at the Young Centre. The contemporary take on the Williams classic highlights the class, race and gender issues that make for simmering, then explosive tensions as a delicate, fragile woman finds herself adrift in the loud, bright, hard world of an urban working class neighbourhood.

When we first see Blanche DuBois (Amy Rutherford), she stands alone with her suitcase on a dimly lit, mostly bare stage. Action, sound and light erupt around her as the sights, music and ethnically diverse people of a big city take over the stage, setting up Stanley and Stella’s two-room apartment in New Orleans. It’s a dynamic, startling visual representation of culture shock for a woman who grew up on a plantation estate in rural Mississippi; and whose only contact with people of colour would have been household servants. Her gentle, crisp world of southern privilege now exchanged for the hard, steamy environment of a working class neighbourhood, she is alone and must rely on others to survive.

With the help of Stella’s upstairs neighbour and landlady Eunice (played with warmth and a suffering-no-fools edge by Akosua Amo-Adem), Blanche finds her way into Stella and Stanley’s apartment—and is mortified to learn that her sister is living in two rooms, separated by a sheer curtain. Stella (Leah Doz) is overjoyed and surprised to see her sister; Stanley (Mac Fyfe) is friendly, but on guard, and wonders how long she’ll be staying. Blanche, a high school English teacher, both withholds and reveals the reason for her stay, confiding to Stella that their childhood home and estate is lost, gambled away over the years by careless ancestors and lately needed to pay for the funerals of their last surviving family members. Stanley’s suspicions about Blanche’s motives for being there are piqued when he learns this, thinking Blanche may have swindled them out of their share of the estate.

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Foreground, clockwise from top: Lindsay Owen Pierre, Mac Fyfe, Gregory Prest & Sebastian Marziali. Background: Oliver Dennis, SATE & Kaleb Horn. Set design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Rachel Forbes. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Blanche looks upon this loud, hard new world with distaste and even contempt, trying in her own small way to brighten the place. Her description of Stanley and his poker pals reads like a field guide in the wild—and she fears her dear, sweet sister has “gone native”. Escaping into drink and reminiscences that are part memory, part fantasy, she is exhausted, desperate and grasping for a solution; she can’t go home and has nowhere else to go. She finds momentary distraction with the paper boy (Kaleb Horn), who possibly reminds her of her tragically lost girlhood love; and hope and a kindred spirit in Mitch (a boyish, bashful turn from Gregory Prest), Stanley’s long-time army buddy, over for a poker game with friends (Sebastian Marziali and Lindsay Owen Pierre). But, as Stanley unearths and reveals Blanche’s secrets, her world becomes even more unravelled—ultimately falling to pieces as he exerts power over her in the most brutal and cruel ways. Betrayed by those in whom she sought refuge, and her hopes for a new life destroyed, she must rely on the kindness of strangers (Oliver Dennis as the Doctor and SATE as the Nurse).

Mengesha’s direction takes the piece on a gradual crescendo toward its final explosive finale, with early moments of comic lightness fading into cruelty and darkness as Blanche’s past is exposed. And the multitasking ensemble is instrumental in creating atmosphere and flavour—including serving up some hot jazz, featuring SATE on sizzling vocals, and Marziali, Pierre, Dennis and Horn on various instruments (music direction by Mike Ross and sound design by Debashis Sinha). The sheet metal on the walls surrounding the playing area is a sharp contrast to the relative warmth of the apartment and its sparse, distressed furnishings (set design by Lorenzo Savoini and lighting design by Kimberly Purtell). And Rachel Forbes’ present-day costuming brings the story front and centre into the now of a city so modern, yet still so primal.

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Mac Fyfe & Leah Doz. Set design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Rachel Forbes. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Stunning, searing performances from Rutherford, Fyfe and Doz. Rutherford’s Blanche is a picture of wilting southern charm and privilege, the gentility and flirtation both a mask for the darkness and secrets beneath, and an armor against a world that feels hard, menacing and foreign to such a delicate, fragile soul. Feeling and fearing the relentless march of time and age, Blanche employs desire, magic and fantasy as a balm against death, trauma and desperation—like she says, desire is the opposite of death. Misunderstood, slut-shamed and betrayed, her final moments are deeply poignant and heart-wrenching to witness. Fyfe gives a finely crafted, nuanced performance as Stanley; an alpha male capable of explosive brute force, there’s sweetness and a lost boy quality to the man, especially evident in his relationship with Stella—where outbursts of rage turn to contrite, wailing pleas for reconciliation. Neither sophisticated nor educated, Stanley has good instincts and smarts; but his drive to dominate weaponizes his knowledge. Doz is both fierce and heartbreaking as Stella; caught in the middle between her beloved sister and a husband she’s crazy for, Stella is forced into the role of pacifier and peacemaker. More adaptable and resilient than her sister, Stella takes this new urban life in stride, rolling with the punches, and savouring the good times with the loved ones and music that surround her. But, in the end, taking Stanley’s side is devastating for both Blanche and herself, as well as for Mitch, who is also stuck in a Madonna/whore perspective of women.

The city is a hard place for a fragile soul. And while some may lose their troubles in music, liquor and sex—there still exists a clear divide on who is and is not allowed to dance away from death and toward desire.

A Streetcar Named Desire continues at the Young Centre until October 27; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

ICYMI: Check out actor Amy Rutherford’s Artist Perspective piece in Intermission Magazine.

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Love, marriage, friendship & infidelity in the intensely intimate, brilliantly executed Betrayal

Virgilia Griffith & Ryan Hollyman. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Soulpepper rounds out its summer programming with its intensely intimate, brilliantly executed production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, directed by Andrea Donaldson and running at the Young Centre. A compelling look at intricate, overlapping webs of lies and deceit, it’s a fascinating look at the dynamics of love and infidelity between a husband and wife, and the husband’s best friend—and the subsequent impact on the marriage, the friendship and the affair itself. Told in reverse chronology, we start with a meeting two years after the affair has ended and go back in time to finish at the moment it was initiated.

When we first see Emma (Virgilia Griffith) and Robert (Ryan Hollyman), they’re meeting for a drink two years after the end of their affair. Robert, also married with children, is the best friend of Emma’s husband Robert (Jordan Pettle). What follows is a brief history of the relationship, shifting from this somewhat awkward meeting, to the break-up, to the revelation, and back through the pseudo-domestic bliss of afternoons spent at their furnished apartment oasis, to the moment the affair starts. We also see Robert and Jerry spending time together, including their favourite Italian restaurant, where they’re served by a waiter who clearly knows them as regulars (Paolo Santalucia, delightfully familiar with an edge of attitude). Questions of who knew what and when are revealed, concealed and lied about throughout, with selective candour emerging at pivotal moments—by chance or on purpose?

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Ryan Hollyman & Jordan Pettle. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Stunning performances all around in this tight, sharply drawn Pinter favourite. The three main characters are very smart—both culturally and intellectually—and, coupled with the fact that they’re all professionals in the British arts and culture scene, the cool, polite and cerebral nature of their banter-filled interactions belies the fiery, devil-may-care, primal passions within—and the accompanying loneliness and ennui that lead them astray. Griffith brings a self-possessed air of confidence to independent and enigmatic Emma; the most pragmatic and level-headed of the affair pairing, Emma’s participation seems to come more from a place of loneliness than passion. Hollyman’s Jerry is an affable combination of wit, enthusiasm and cluelessness; a man with a “talent for finding talent”, Jerry pursues Emma with the lyrical passion of a university freshman—then gets upset when he learns that his best friend knows he’s been having it off with his wife. This hypocrisy extends to Robert, played with cool, poker-faced detachment by Jordan Pettle; with razor-like precision, Robert reveals little and conceals much—and has been having affairs himself, possibly out of a sense of marital ennui.

Starting in 1977 and ending in 1968, the brilliant reverse chronological structure not only acts as a compelling rewind on the relationships, but serves as hindsight wisdom. The finely-tuned energy and pacing of the performances create the feeling of a fire gone out at the beginning, to a dying ember, to a spark at the beginning—a spark that, one imagines, has emerged from the dying embers of the two marriages. It is a thrilling, guilty pleasure to witness; and the up-close-and-personal intimacy of the piece makes the audience feel complicit in the cheating. And the outstanding efforts of the design team transport us to both time and place with impeccable attention to detail and flare: the teak furniture and print designs of Ken MacKenzie’s set and costumes; the enjoyable mix of late 60s and 70s music for the pre-show, and gripping original soundtrack from sound designer/composer Richard Feren; and Rebecca Picherack’s sharp, focused and atmospheric lighting design.

Betrayal continues at the Young Centre until September 25, the run was extended due to popular demand; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. This is an extremely popular production, with a packed house on a Tuesday night, so advance booking is strongly recommended.

ICYMI: Jordy Kieto interviews director Andrea Donaldson about the production in Intermission Magazine.

Department of Corrections: In the original posting, I neglected to mention actor Paolo Santalucia’ performance as the Waiter; this has been corrected.

Deconstructing art & friendship in the razor-sharp, scathingly funny Art

Diego Matamoros, Oliver Dennis & Huse Madhavji. Set design by Gillian Gallow. Costume design by Dana Osborne. Lighting design by Bonnie Beecher. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Soulpepper gives us a fly-on-the-wall look at how a debate on the merits of post-modern art turns to an exercise in deconstructing friendship in its razor-sharp, scathingly funny production of Yasmina Reza’s Art, translated by Christopher Hampton and directed by Philip Akin, assisted by Daniel Spragge. The cerebral and emotional responses to a newly acquired painting set off intense and surprising ripples, impacting the relationship of three friends. Art opened to an enthusiastic crowd at the Young Centre last night.

Serge (Diego Matamoros) is very excited and happy about a new painting he’s just purchased and proudly shows it off to his friend Marc (Oliver Dennis), who despite attempts at a tactful response, laughs and proclaims it to be shit. And not only that, Marc is extremely concerned about Serge—for spending a ridiculous amount of money on a painting that he believes to be worthless, and for possibly turning into a poser. Looking for a second opinion on the interaction, Serge and Marc individually approach their friend Yvan (Huse Madhavji), using him as a sounding board as they relate their description of what transpired.

Yvan is more tolerant and accepting of choices and differences, he doesn’t see what the big deal is. Plus, he’s got problems of his own to deal with—namely, the wedding planning hell he’s navigating with his fiancée and their respective parents and step-parents. And when he gets his own unveiling of the piece, he doesn’t like it—but he also doesn’t hate it either—and respects Serge’s choice.

The debate between friends on the merits of the painting and post-modern art in general  turns into a deconstruction of their relationship, whereby barbed quips become savage accusations and revelations. Brutal honesty on steroids unveils hidden jealousies, revulsion—and even a heated battle for dominance in friends’ social and intellectual lives.

Excellent work from this three-hander cast in this hilarious and revealing look at art and friendship. It’s delightful to watch the child-like level of glee and enthusiasm with which Matamoros’s Serge unveils his painting to his friends, navigating sight lines and pondering the canvas, hand on chin; this coupled with the pride of a burgeoning art collector who’s acquired an important work. With the heart of a philosopher and more than a few hints of a status-seeker, Serge is a complex man. Dennis brings an amiable but somewhat aloof air of precision and worldliness to the urbane Marc; a fan of the classics, Marc looks with withering skepticism upon modernity in art and lifestyle—and any whiff of the poseur is met with great derision and suspicion. Marc’s vehement opposition to and concern over Serge’s purchase of the painting is obviously masking something deeper about their relationship. Madhavji is a treat as Yvan, the understanding and open-minded friend in the middle who laughs with, as opposed to at, the situation; the Switzerland of the trio, Yvan often acts as an umpire for his two friends. Accused of being disingenuous, a doormat and a coward, he’s able to see both sides of the argument and feels no need to dominate his relationships—he just wants to be a good friend and husband.

A savage comedy of manners, Art is a compelling exploration of how a response to outside stimuli (in this case, a painting) can trigger a deeper, visceral reaction to those closest to us. Passions flare with biting criticism and conflict, only to be salvaged by good humour, good nature and agreeing to disagree.

Art continues at the Young Centre until September 1; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Love & hate, abandonment & connection in the searing, electric Fool for Love

Cara Gee & Eion Bailey. Set design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Shannon Lea Doyle. Lighting design by Simon Rossiter. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Soulpepper Theatre presents a searing, electric production of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, directed by Frank Cox-O’Connell and running at the Young Centre. The shifting temperatures of love/hate and tenderness/cruelty take on new meaning, with the pairing of an Indigenous woman with a non-Indigenous man as the on again, off again lovers—who come together and tear apart, both individually and collectively, in this rough and gentle dance of connection, abandonment, rage and desire.

In a cheap, grotty motel room in the Mohave Desert, May (Cara Gee) and Eddie (Eion Bailey) play out their ongoing cycle of of love, hate, abandonment and connection in a relationship that has come together and broken apart since they were in high school. Fiery, furtive—and playing off each other’s emotional and mental states—the power dynamic shifts as one pulls it together and the other falls apart. Explosions of jealousy, rage and recrimination reveal the simple, awful truth that they can’t live with or without each other.

Watching from the sidelines is the Old Man (Stuart Hughes), a father—a memory or a ghost?—observing the scene, and offering comments and advice from his rocking chair on the sand as he drinks Jack Daniels from a Styrofoam cup. Then, entering this love/war zone is local lawn maintenance guy Martin (Alex McCooeye), there to take May out to the movies. Initially interrogated by Eddie, he becomes an unwitting confessor as Eddie reveals how he and May met—and the nature of their connection.

Outstanding work from the entire ensemble in this intense, fly-on-the-wall look at a deeply complex, conflicted relationship. Gee is both fierce and vulnerable as May; wounded, wary and loving Eddie so much, but refusing to take it any more, May wants him to leave and to stay, to have him and move on. She also doesn’t want to be a dirty secret like her mother. Bailey balances Eddie’s cocky cowboy and hurt little boy; with a family history of abandonment and an unfulfilled longing to connect with an often absent father, he struggles to be his own man—all with the painful realization that he can’t be with May, nor can he quit her. The casting of an Indigenous woman and non-Indigenous man in this production highlights ongoing issues of colonization of Indigenous women’s bodies and minds; and the lies the white-dominated patriarchy feeds to white boys—about women and what they’re entitled to—when only certain white men actually benefit from this system. (Be sure to read Gee’s Artist Note at the front of the program for her lived experience and experience working on this production, as well as shared insights on these themes.)

Hughes and McCooeye provide arms-length—though very different—perspectives of the May-Eddie dynamic. Hughes brings a grizzled, cynical, even haunting vibe as the Old Man; revealing his own life as he reveals theirs. McCooeye’s performance as the sweet but dim Martin rings of a small-town, child-like innocence, and provides some much needed comic relief. There for a simple date at the movies, Martin winds up as a witness to the latest skirmish in Eddie and May’s relationship, and confidante to their personal history together.

With shouts to the design team for their part in creating an environment of heightened realism for this production: the gritty, sparse motel room set (Lorenzo Savoini); regional costuming that is both seductive and practical (Shannon Lea Doyle); the lighting effects that give the room a neon, then a fiery, glow (Simon Rossiter); and sound design and composition (Andrew Penner) that provide both atmospheric highlighting and practical punctuation to the action. And there’s live music, created on the dobro with slide, nicely done by Hughes.

Love as a cycle of possession, addictive desire, oasis, war zone and even shame—it’s easy to see why these lovers can’t be together, yet can’t be apart.

Fool for Love continues at the Young Centre, the run extended to August 11; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Advance booking strongly recommended; I saw it on a Tuesday night and it was sold out.

The power of love, music & colour in the visually rich, magical, ground-breaking The Black Drum

Corinna Den Dekker, Dawn Jani Birley, Yan Liu & Daniel Durant. Set & props design by Ken Mackenzie. Costume design by Ruth Albertyn. Makeup by Angela McQueen. Video & projection design by Laura Warren. Lighting design by Chris Malkowski. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Commissioned and produced by the Canadian Cultural Society of the Deaf, the Deaf Culture Centre presents the world premiere of Adam Pottle’s Deaf musical The Black Drum,* in partnership with Soulpepper at the Young Centre. Directed by Mira Zuckermann, assisted by Jack Volpe, with movement and choreography by Patricia Allison, The Black Drum combines signed music, dance, movement and projected imagery to tell the story of a woman’s journey through loss and grief to find the power of her inner music, as her tattoos come to life and launch her into a strange, dark world dominated by a sinister force. The result is a visually rich, magical and ground-breaking piece of storytelling.

As the story begins, we are introduced to the Minister (Bob Hiltermann), a sinister and controlling presence who dominates a world devoid of music, laughter, love and freedom. Meanwhile, performing artist Joan (Dawn Jani Birley) is reeling from the loss of her beloved wife Karen (Agata Wisny), inconsolable as her roommates Bree (Yan Liu) and Oscar (Daniel Durant) try to reach through her grief. Propelled into the world of the Minister, Joan’s tattoos Butterfly (Liu) and Bulldog (Durant)—beauty and strength—come to life.

In this dark, grim and desolate place, Joan encounters the Minister’s reluctant lieutenant Squib (Natasha C. Bacchus) and Ava (Corinna Den Dekker), who dances with a group of children (Jaelyn Russell-Lillie, Sita Weereatne and Abbey Jackson-Bell). Ava tells Joan that the Minister controls this world, a place between life and death, with magic—his black drum (drum accompaniment by Dimitri Kanaris), the embodiment of his empty black heart. And Joan also learns that Karen is the Minister’s prisoner. Charged with using her colour and music, Joan sets out with her friends to defeat the Minister and free her beloved from his clutches.

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Agata Wisny & Bob Hiltermann. Set & props design by Ken Mackenzie. Costume design by Ruth Albertyn. Makeup by Angela McQueen. Video & projection design by Laura Warren. Lighting design by Chris Malkowski. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Hiltermann brings a nightmarish, supernatural edge to the menacing, arrogant Minister; his sharp-featured white face mirrored by the spooky talking head projections that flank the stage—occasionally speaking they guide us through the story (voice acting by Raquel Duffy and Diego Matamoros). Birley’s performance as Joan beautifully weaves the devastation of grief with the perseverance of resistance as Joan strives to free Karen, despite the fact that she’ll never be able to get her back.

Lovely work from a supporting cast that hails from all over the globe; Liu’s Butterfly is both balletic and delicate, with a feisty will that doesn’t back down from a fight; and Durant brings comic relief as the tough, yet sweet and big-hearted, Bulldog. Den Dekker’s meek and timid Ava reveals inner strength as her longing for freedom for herself and her dancing children turns into action; and Bacchus’s Squib may be a hard-ass soldier serving the Minister, but is as much under his control as the others, and would choose otherwise.

Visually stunning, magical and moving, this Deaf-led, ground-breaking piece of storytelling resonates; both allowing Deaf audience to experience their culture on stage, and giving hearing audience a new perspective on how a story can be presented and communicated. Hearing audiences are used to using their ears to hear the music and dialogue; here, we see and feel the music, the vibrations physically resonating through our bodies and the rhythms dancing across our minds—all aimed at our hearts. And it’s a compelling reminder, for all of us, that love, colour and music are powerful weapons against the dark forces that haunt our everyday lives.

The Black Drum continues at the Young Centre until June 29; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

*Note: This production is presented with Written and Voice Synopsis & Audio Assist Devices and is accessible to non-ASL audiences.

Ancestors calling on a hero’s journey through fear to true self in the engaging, powerful 11:11

Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Set design by d’bi.young anitafrika. Costume design by Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Brett Haynes.

 

A.V.O. Collective brings the world premiere of its engaging, powerful production of 11:11, presented as part of Why Not Theatre’s RISER Project 2019, to the Theatre Centre’s Incubator stage. Written/performed by trans-identified artist Samson Bonkeabantu Brown and dramaturged/directed by d’bi.young anitafrika, 11:11 is a bio-mythical monodrama journey, stretching across time, space, and the realms of life and afterlife, as our hero connects with his Portuguese and South African ancestors, and moves through fear to become the man he was meant to be.

In a one-person show that encompasses both broad and immediate personal history, Brown draws out his tale as he gradually constructs a pattern on the floor with white stones. Incorporating storytelling, history, movement, ritual, language and music, he shape shifts in and out of a cast of characters that include the precocious, curious seven-year-old girl he once was and the joyful, prophesying, matter-of-fact South African ancestor he’s about to meet.

Becoming a bridge between past and present, female and male, he connects with the spirit world through dreams and visions—and gradually the messages become clear as the little girl who experiences strange dreams and headaches, and is shunned in the schoolyard, grows up and comes to learn that there’s nothing medically wrong with her. She is a receiver, a prophecy made flesh, a shape shifter.

In a world where white men divided up a continent they claimed as their own, and forced their alphabet onto environment-based African dialects—and, later, Western medicine onto African descendants—how does our hero reconcile his connections to both the colonized and the colonizer? And, through the pain of the struggle for true identity, and the ancestral pain of apartheid and displacement, he comes to realize the complex—and even contradictory—aspects of identity and experience that have combined to create him.

1111 by Samson Bonkeabantu Brown (featuring Samson Bonkeabantu Brown) photo by Brett Haynes #2
Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Set design by d’bi.young anitafrika. Costume design by Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Brett Haynes.

Brown, who recently wrote for/performed in the RARE Theatre/Soulpepper production Welcome to my Underworld, is a compelling and entertaining storyteller. Engaging, bold, unashamed and vulnerable, he invites us along on his journey—part autobiography, part personal mythology, part history lesson, part supernatural revelation—as he connects with his roots and finds his true rhythm. From the child-like playfulness of a little girl to the wry-witted wisdom of an elder, the fear, confusion, joy and humour Brown expresses throughout resonate in a deeply profound, intimate way. And I know I wasn’t the only one in tears at the end.

11:11 continues in the Incubator at the Theatre Centre until June 1, with performances on:

Tuesday, May 28 – 6:00PM
Wednesday, May 29 – 9:00PM
Thursday, May 30 – 6:00PM
Friday, May 31 – 9:00PM
Saturday, June 1 – 6:00PM

Tickets available online, in person at the box office, or by calling 416-538-0988.

Secrets revealed & dreams denied in the ferociously funny, deeply poignant August: Osage County

The ensemble. Set design by Camellia Koo. Costume design by Gillian Gallow. Lighting design by Davida Tkach. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Life is very long.—T.S. Eliot

Soulpepper presents a ferociously funny, deeply poignant production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, running now at the Young Centre. Directed by Jackie Maxwell, assisted by Lindsay Bell, it’s a modern-day classic family tragicomedy; a microcosm of the disintegration of the American Dream. In the explosive aftermath of loss, a complex family dynamic of abuse, secrets and addiction is revealed—and the reeling survivors must choose what to do next as they pick their way out of the rubble.

When lauded American poet and infamous alcoholic Beverly Weston (Diego Matamoros) goes missing, his entire clan rallies around pill-popping family matriarch Violet (Nancy Palk), now living with cancer. The introverted Ivy, their youngest daughter (Michelle Monteith), the only the only one who stayed in town, has a secret love. Whip-smart academic Barbara, the eldest (Maev Beaty) is concealing her separation from her husband Bill (Kevin Hanchard), a university prof having an affair with a student; and their 15-year-old daughter Jean (Leah Doz) is just trying to deal with it all as she smokes pot on the sly. And middle daughter, the flaky Karen (Raquel Duffy), seems to have found a new lease on life with a career as a real estate agent and her charming, entitled, sleazy fiancé Steve (Ari Cohen).

Rounding out the family portrait in the dark, hot and decrepit family home in rural Pawhuska, Oklahoma is Violet’s filterless gossip of a sister Mattie Fae (Laurie Paton); artless, kind-hearted brother-in-law Charlie (Oliver Dennis); and fragile, depressed nephew Little Charles (Gregory Prest). Witnessing it all from the background is the Weston’s new housekeeper/caregiver Johnna (Samantha Brown), a local Cheyenne woman hired by Beverly to keep home and hearth together amid the chaos of sickness, addiction and decay.

The family soon learns of Beverly’s whereabouts when town Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Jeff Meadows), Barbara’s high school sweetheart, arrives at the door with news that his body has been found—a suspected suicide, but officially ruled as a drowning. The initial dynamic of worried family support disintegrates into ugly revelation and recrimination as long hidden rot and resentment comes to light in the hellishly sweltering heat of the Plains in August; and Barbara attempts to take control of the situation. Left with Violet after an explosive post-funeral dinner, followed by several individual family skirmishes, Barbara begins to implode herself—and is forced to face a fresh hell and a decision of her own.

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Maev Beaty & Nancy Palk. Set design by Camellia Koo. Costume design by Gillian Gallow. Lighting design by Davida Tkach. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Palk and Beaty are riveting as the sharp-witted, brutally honest mother and daughter—the two alphas of the family menagerie. Palk’s Violet is the perfect combination of fury and pathos; an acerbic tongue, and a gift for manipulation and attention-seeking, it becomes apparent that Violet’s dark humour and grasping materialism are borne of a tortured, impoverished soul and an abusive family history. She is well-matched by Beaty’s Barbara; a whip-smart writer and academic who’s suppressed her own ambition in the shadow of her famous father, and in service of her husband’s career and her own family. Barbara’s confident, take-charge demeanour reveals the desperately lost life and broken heart that lie beneath. And where Violet lashes out with cruelty to overpower, Barbara aims for tough love.

Monteith is heartbreaking as the gentle, put-upon Ivy, who’s struggling to find her place and a bit of happiness. Duffy is hilarious as the quirky, exhausting Karen; a one-woman hurricane of changeable beliefs and lifestyles, ever reaching for the brass ring. Dennis is lovely as the kind, gentle Charlie—especially in exchanges with his painfully self-conscious, down-trodden son Little Charles (a sensitive, child-like performance from Prest). And Matamoros brings a brutally insightful, drunken eloquence to the poet Beverly.

Expressions of love and tenderness provide brief moments of respite from the cruelty and bitterness of these complex family relationships. And Brown’s pragmatic, matter-of-fact Johnna—listener, witness and left to deal with the aftermath of each event—is a stark reminder of the original Indigenous stewards of the land we now call America; colonized and evicted from their homeland. Now watching from the sidelines as the American Dream falls into ruin, as all survivors emerge from and persevere through the rubble.

August: Osage County continues at the Young Centre until June 23; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Soulpepper will be offering live ASL interpretation for this production on June 6 (7:30 PM) and June 8 (1:30 PM); $20 tickets are available for Deaf community members and their invited guests—click here for more info.