Like Edward Albee lost in Sam Shepard country, Tracy Letts’ Chicago and Broadway hit is a portrait of the American family that is cringingly horrifying as often as it is hilariously comic, and is sometimes both at the same time. Letts’ particular subject is the way that family members know precisely what to say to cause the greatest pain to each other, and how a lifetime of togetherness can make that effect inevitable even when the pain-giver isn’t actually trying.
When the amiably alcoholic patriarch of an Oklahoma family kills himself, his adult daughters and various other family members gather to support his pill-addled widow, who rather takes this opportunity to cast off all pretence to civility and tell everyone what she really thinks of them. Meanwhile, the daughters, even while reeling from their mother’s precision bombing, are so wrapped up in their own separate gothic melodramas as to have little sympathy for each other.
Not since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf has lashing out in pain and the inflicting of pain been so shocking and irresistibly entertaining to watch, and if at three and a half hours the playwright might be a bit self-indulgent and throw in one or two too many soap opera twists, it is difficult to complain about an excess of riches.
Unsurprisingly, the ensemble playing of this Steppenwolf Theatre cast and the direction of Anna D Shapiro are unwaveringly top-notch, though they cannot disguise the fact that the starring and most powerful performances are by Deanna Dunagan as the mother from hell and Amy Morton as the daughter trying hardest to keep things sane.
Lyttelton, National Theatre, London, November 21-January 21
- Tracy Letts
- Anna D Shapiro
- Steppenwolf Theatre Company, National Theatre
- Cast includes
- Deanna Dunagan, Amy Morton, Sally Murphy, Rondi Reed, Chelcie Ross, Jeff Perry