August Heat + Family Fury = Stunning Broadway

august_osage_countyTracy Letts’s new play August: Osage County, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, is a brilliant indictment not only of the American family—which has taken plenty of hits over the years, and rightly so—but of America’s culture and history as well. In fact the dysfunctional Weston family is a metaphor for the American people. They live on the former Great Plains, 60 miles northwest of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the true heartland. Just as the Westons drink, pop pills, attack each other, cheat on their partners, and rage at perceived insults and old humiliations, so do we all in this great imperialistic consumer culture we call our own.

Like King Lear’s family, this one has three grown daughters. But whereas Lear was a widower, Beverly Weston’s wife Violet (Deanna Dunagan) is very much alive. Lurching down the staircase and slurring her words from too many meds, she nonetheless dominates the scene. Unlike O’Neill’s lost mother Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night, who tries to hide her habit, Violet just bolts down handfuls of pills whenever she wants, and lashes out at her daughters with a viciousness that reminds us of Lillian Hellman’s characters in The Little Foxes. Only the eldest daughter Barbara (Amy Morton) can really hold her own with this viperous mother, so when these two get going, the fur flies.

The play is bitingly humorous. The characters are smart and brutal, the dialogue witty, and the situations scandalous (as when the third daughter’s businessman fiancé tries to seduce her fourteen-year-old niece after the rest of the family has gone to bed). Almost everyone in the play is either drinking alcohol, smoking pot, or addicted to prescription drugs. That two people who believe they are first cousins turn out to be half siblings is not too surprising, nor—in the context of general amoral mayhem—that they want to run away to “live together” in New York City.

In the Steppenwolf Theatre Company production now housed on Broadway at the Imperial Theatre, the set consists of a three-story house, open to our view like a giant doll’s house, with action at various times on all three floors. In the attic is a lone bedroom where the young Native American woman stays who has been hired as cook and housekeeper by family patriarch and one-book-wonder Beverly (played by the author’s father, Dennis Letts). Brought in to take over for the heavy drinking Beverly and his pill-popping wife, she gets to curry to the needs of all three generations of the family when they descend upon their home at a time of crisis. This Cheyenne woman carries so much symbolism, she’s hard to ignore: the Native Americans we both wiped out and marginalized; any person of color who ends up working as a domestic; the calm, helpful female from an “outsider” group who takes care of the privileged white people’s mess.

Through most of the play, she speaks very little in this garrulous crowd. But when the 14-year-old Jean (Madeleine Martin) is being groped in the dining room by the lecherous pedophile fiancé of her aunt, the good, mostly silent Indian rushes in and hits him over the head. She knows right from wrong, unlike just about anyone else in the extended family. Jean’s father has left her mother for a student, who, as Jean points out to him (when he tries to play the paternal protective role), is just a few years older than she is.

Everyone on stage is a fine actor, and the compelling production reminds us just how much American theatre needs first-rate repertory companies. Tracy Letts is a member of the Steppenwolf Ensemble, and he wrote this large-cast play—13 characters on stage—for the company he knew, with particular actors in mind. The play was first performed in Chicago, where the cast obviously got to really jell. Such a production provides a kind of golden opportunity that is rarely seen in New York City, where all too often on Broadway a brilliant actor is paired with a mildly talented film or television star. That’s how the money likes to play it. I have grown so used to the uneven casts of American productions that the deeply committed ensemble in this play actually shocked me with its bravura performance. Acting, directing, set—all were powerful and unnerving.

Letts is not afraid to mock sacred concepts, such as that of the World War ll so-called “greatest generation,” a sentimental idea that has been growing out of control in recent years; it’s one of new pieties we are all asked to bow down to. But Barbara, in one of her rages, cries out, “greatest generation, my ass,” going on to remark that they hated the Nazis doesn’t seem like such a big deal; don’t we all hate the Nazis? And “greatest” compared to what? Surely, she implies, there have been other generations in the past that we might look at. As America grows more and more publicly pious, it is wonderful to hear all the scurrilous and deeply cynical diatribes of this family. Even family dinner prayer is held up for satire.

Letts is 42 years old. I haven’t seen his prior plays, such as Killer Joe or Bug, but I suspect we will be seeing revivals of them soon. He is what we’ve been waiting for the last couple of decades—someone new to rival Sam Shepard and David Mamet. A real voice in the theatre. His text is layered, intelligent as well as outrageous. The play begins with old poet Beverly mumbling on about his work and that of T.S. Eliot. The play ends with “the Indian” in the attic (as Violet refers to her) rocking a family member in her arms, murmuring, “This is the way the world ends… this is the way the world ends,” recalling Eliot’s profound lines from The Wasteland, “This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper.” At last someone is taking a hard look at American culture and recognizing the vandal hordes in the distance that we, like the ancient Romans, have been too busy or too short-sighted to perceive. – Victoria Sullivan

August: Osage County is scheduled to run through March 9, 2008 at the Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th St., New York, NY 10036.

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Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.

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