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In Winnipeg, Martha Henry has us under her spell

From left: Brigitte Robinson, Martha Henry and Miriam Smith star in August: Osage County, on stage in Winnipeg.

Bruce Monk

It has been a while since we've seen Martha Henry, the erstwhile first lady of the Canadian stage, sink her teeth into a meaty leading role.

Indeed, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival veteran has no part at all in the Ontario theatre company's upcoming 60th-anniversary season – a state of affairs seen as a minor scandal in certain circles, although the lack of strong characters for older women in classical theatre is hardly a new problem.

If you suspect that the 74-year-old's absence means that her powers are fading, however, shake a leg to catch her hurricane-force performance in the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's intimate production of August: Osage County. She stars as Violet Weston, the pill-popping, monster mother at the heart of Tracy Letts's darkly comic 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner.

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Henry, who was the very first graduate of the National Theatre School, has a performance style that bridges eras of acting. She can do a quieter naturalism, but, every so often, her voice becomes deep and resonant, almost incantatory – and it can make your neck hairs stand on end.

In her first scene as Violet, entering under the influence and wrapped in a boa, the larger-than-life musicality of Henry's performance seems to jar with the modern material.

Violet's slurred words are overarticulated, while her movements are too deliberate. She seems less a drug addict than some kind of performance poet – though, admittedly, that's a very thin line.

But Henry grows into the role and her heightened theatricality lends itself better to the later scenes. By the time a hazy Violet reacts to the delivery of terrible news about her husband, Henry has us under her spell. She had the whole theatre holding its collective breath at the pathetic display of Violet dancing to Eric Clapton as her family falls apart. Yowza.

Ultimately, Henry's Violet is the most emotionally wrenching I've seen. In fact, over all, director Ann Hodges's clear and confident production is the first that has moved me as often as it makes me laugh out loud.

There are, of course, 12 other cast members, mostly Manitobans, and this visiting critic was happy to be introduced to their talents. I was particularly impressed by Sharon Bajer as Barbara, the oldest Weston daughter – an angry, heartbroken woman who eventually wrests control of the dysfunctional household from her mother (or so she thinks). Bajer is unfailingly funny, but also effectively mines the sadness beneath Barbara's sarcasm.

Other standouts among the women are Julia Arkos as the self-involved Karen Weston, who is hilarious until she turns tragic, and Brigitte Robinson as the cruel Aunt Mattie Fae.

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Among the men folk, the only real misfire comes from Robert Glen Thompson's cartoonish performance as the hapless cousin, Little Charles.

Being up close and personal to the action in the theatre's 280-seat Warehouse amplifies Letts's play. But set designer Brian Perchaluk's reluctance to embrace the smaller stage is a setback. His crammed and cluttered stage is a pain in the neck – literally, as if you sit up close and have to scan back and forth.

Based on quality, Hodges's production of August: Osage County should be spreading its wings on the main stage, while God of Carnage should be banished to the B house.

Miles Potter's production of French playwright Yasmina Reza's farce is disappointing, portraying the hit Broadway comedy as shallow and self-satisfied.

Recently adapted by Roman Polanski into a film, God of Carnage concerns two couples who meet up after their sons have a fight in a nearby park. Naturally, their civilized attempt to sit down and settle the dispute over clafouti quickly falls apart, leading to projectile vomiting and the untimely deaths of beasts and BlackBerrys.

Oliver Becker gets the style right as Michael, who is – in his words – "disguised as a liberal" by his wife, Veronica; he's amusingly monstrous but remains tethered to some semblance of recognizable humanity.

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The rest struggle to find the right approach in Christopher Hampton's awkward translation, which moves the action to New York, but retains a smug Frenchified feel.

Potter's production has trouble finding the right rhythm or tempo and ends up stuck in a groove – an endless, shouty reiteration of the same skin-deep cynical assertion that we're all Neanderthals under the civilized surface. The director's tin ear for Reza's play is exemplified by the fact that it opens with the Black Eyed Peas's I Gotta Feeling (... that tonight's gonna be a good night) – even though the action, unusually, takes place during the day.

Gillian Gallow's off-kilter set is a stunner with one corner of the living room jutting out into the audience. It proves difficult to use, however, and actor John Cassini ends up spending much of the play seemingly standing in the invisible corner like a dunce.

This God of Carnage was to be a co-production with the Vancouver Playhouse. I'll resist the temptation to make any grand, sweeping conclusions about that, but it's not a tragedy if Vancouverites miss out on it.

August: Osage County

  • Written by Tracy Letts
  • Directed by Ann Hodges
  • Starring Martha Henry
  • At the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg

God of Carnage

  • Written by Yasmina Reza
  • Directed by Miles Potter
  • At the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg

August: Osage County runs in Winnipeg until March 24; God of Carnage runs until April 7.

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