Categories: Entertainment

SACHS play tackles family dysfunction

Barbara (Olivia Billsten) and Bill (Adam McMahon) act out a fight scene during a dress rehearsal of SACHS' upcoming production

There are many unhappy families. However, there is probably no one family in St. Albert as dysfunctional as the Oklahoma Westons.

Better known through Tracy Letts’ play August: Osage County, the Westons make an appearance at the Arden Theatre on March 4 and 5 as part of St. Albert Catholic High’s theatre arts and theatre production program.

This isn’t just a mildly dysfunctional family. Generation after generation they have inflicted a list of pathologies on each other ranging from alcoholism and drug addiction to adultery and sexual misbehaviour.

Their antics are pretty much a live soap opera on display. But August is also a play similar to Eugene O’Neill’s Long Days Journey Into Night with echoes of punishing blood ties.

While some interpretations of this production focus on how the sins of one generation are inflicted upon the next, director Debbie Dyer has taken the opposite tactic.

“It’s more than about a dysfunctional family. It’s about the exploration of the dysfunction and how the characters try to evolve and grow past that. And it’s how they try to find and create a world that is stronger and better for their family.”

Violet is the acid-tongued matriarch, a woman mired in misery who became addicted to painkillers. Her husband of more than 30 years, a poet, professor and alcoholic, disappears one night.

The couple’s three daughters and their respective families are called back home to comfort their mother. The unassertive Ivy lives close by, resents the responsibility of caring for her parents and secretly carries on an affair with her cousin Little Charles.

Barbara, the oldest and strongest, has a cutting humour and returns from Colorado with her estranged husband and sarcastic daughter Jean. The youngest Weston, Karen, arrives from Florida accompanied by Steve, an oily businessman fiancé and a litany of self-help bromides.

Surrounding Violet is an extended family – her razor-tongued sister Mattie Fae and her hen-pecked husband Charles. There is also the housekeeper Hanna, the only character not tainted with the Weston past.

The evil mother of evil mothers, Violet is an expert at ripping her claws into family members. But as Dyer explains she had a complex childhood.

“One year Violet begged for cowboy boots at Christmas. That’s all she wanted. Her mother went out and got an old pair of rubber boots and rubbed them in muck and put them in a box. She thought it was funny. Violet has tried to make choices unlike her mother. It’s part of her DNA, but I don’t think there’s any way to eradicate something like the boot image.”

In the SACHS production, Grade 11 student Claudia Kulay, an école Alexandre-Taché senior taking options at St. Albert Catholic High, handles the challenging role of Violet.

Much of Kulay’s challenge is to find and explore Violet’s vulnerabilities and her manipulations.

“Claudia can shift nuances in a very real way. When we hear the story of the boots, she’s telling us that all she wants is to be loved. You see her working through the process and there are so many shifting moments.”

Violet clashes most openly with Barbara, played by Grade 12 student Olivia Billsten. Together they go head-to-head and heart-to-heart, notes Dyer.

“There are moments of beautiful love that are overlooked because of the anger. But you sense that Barbara is trying to move past her hurts. Some of the strongest moments in the play are not the anger and fighting, but in the softness and connections.”

Unlike professional productions, Dyer has cleansed the heavily larded script of the F-bomb.

“The language was ferocious, but by taking away the heaviness does not take away the power of the language. In fact, it becomes clearer and the range of emotion is greater. Because the script is not disrupted by the F-word, it helps the audience hear the play more powerfully.”

One of Dyer’s personal convictions is that families need to openly discuss issues such as addictions, alcoholism and relationships before they grow into insurmountable problems.

“We are a part of previous generations. We can see a reflection and how our world is marked by generations before. If you understand that, you understand yourself.”


August: Osage County
St. Albert Catholic High Theatre Arts
March 4 and 5 at 7 p.m.
Arden Theatre
5 St. Anne Street
Tickets: $20/adults; $10/students; $75/five-pack. Call SACHS at 780-459-7781.

Anna Borowiecki: Anna Borowiecki joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2000. She reports on local people and events in the arts, entertainment and food industry. She also writes general news and features.