Tracy Letts’ 2007 Great American Family Drama, or so we’d believe from the national press, four Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize, unfolds just outside Pawhuska, Oklahoma — the playwright’s home state. “The plains” is an expression used by a visitor to the Weston family to describe the local landscape. The word plains is elongated so that it blurs into the word pains.
The Westons don’t go in for air conditioning. That would make them spoiled. In one of the many stories that forms the crux of the drama, we learn from Karen (Amy Warren) — visiting after her father has just drowned himself in the local lake — that her mother, Violet Weston (Estelle Parsons), bought a parakeet, which promptly died. Violet bought another parakeet — another mortality. After a third, a representative from the local pet store visited the home and concluded that the birds were dropping from the heat (these are tropical birds).
There’s a scene in which Violet’s sister Mattie Fae Aiken (Libby George) can’t believe how much she’s perspiring. She implores her husband, Charlie Aiken (Paul Vincent O’Connor), to feel her back under her blouse. Without a word spoken, his expression and body language reveal a repugnance so profound, it cuts to the core of their marriage. She persists until his hand is hovercrafting over the swamp of her lower back. And this is the physical environment in which the Westons pass their Augusts in Osage County, Oklahoma.
August: Osage County has at last pulled in to the Ahmanson Theatre in a Steppenwolf Theatre Company production, handily staged by Anna D. Shapiro. (Steppenwolf commissioned the work.) The drama consists of almost four hours of revelations about a truly fucked-up family, liberally peppered with dashes of Gothic humor, as well as farce.
Oh how we love our Gothic family epics. Pulitzer Prizes have gone to Crimes of the Heart, The Kentucky Cycle and now this.
At the top of the play, we meet Beverly Weston (Jon DeVries), a crusty, hard-drinking T.S. Eliot–quoting member of literati, pontificating to his newly hired Cheyenne Indian housekeeper (DeLanna Studi) about the point and pointlessness of existence. “Yes, life is very long.” (She will eventually be seen sitting cross-legged on a bed, perched at the pinnacle of Todd Rosenthal’s three-tier set, reading a small volume of T.S. Eliot poems, which Beverly gave her. She’s a kind of metaphor for the stoic, silent and dignified tribe these resident clowns superseded.) He’s hiring the sweet-natured woman to care for his cancer-afflicted spouse, Violet (Parsons), who wanders between cogency and unconsciousness, between staggering forward and lying prone, from all the pills she’s imbibing. The next thing we know, Beverly has disappeared, along with his boat, and this can’t be good.
What follows is a gathering of the clan, and what a clan. Imagine a cross between Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Del Shore’s Comedy, Daddy’s Dyin’, Who’s Got the Will? It has some of the gravitas of O’Neill’s classic and much of Shore’s brand of sitcom humor. This very combination, in the four-hour boiler, results in, well, a very funny, and finely performed potboiler.
Compared to O’Neill, it’s a mere shadow, but compared to the gloss of so many family dramas on our stages, Letts’ is at least reaching for a suggestion that his clan represents the state of America in the world. “This country was always a whorehouse,” is how a character recalls Beverly’s conviction. “But at least it had promise. Now it’s just a shit hole.”
This is a bit of a strain — present a nutty, masochistic family onstage, with matriarchs who go out of their way to decimate their children emotionally, and then suggest that this family represents the U.S.A. In truth, the family is both bigger and smaller than that. Family dynamics easily speak to what makes us tick as humans, both microcosmically and in the cosmos. But they don’t necessarily speak to the character or the history of a nation. Imagine Christopher Durang in his family farces such as Baby with the Bathwater, or The Marriage of Bette & Boo, staking his claim on American history. Or, for that matter, Eugene O’Neill. Inventive directors have tried for decades to pull off such a connection with the Greek tragedies (on which O’Neill based many of his dramas), transforming them into epics, with General Agamemnon in Army fatigues, representing U.S. military adventures overseas. These kinds of adaptations come with a helium balloon of contrivance, attached by a string. Parallels between the dynamics of the family, and those of the state, are deceptive because they appear superficially to be so similar. Beneath the surface, however, the engine of a government and that of a family have different structures, and run on different fuels.
August: Osage County is a very funny play, filled with pending traumas of incest, an act of felony-lechery and a dinner-scene brawl with as many smashed plates as a Three Stooges routine. Violet attacks her daughter, Barbara (Shannon Cochran, in a performance of scathing wit and intelligence), assailing Barbara’s Boomer generation for its selfishness. “He believed in something greater than himself, and so do I,” Violet lectures Barbara about the deceased Weston, with blistering and ludicrous self-righteousness, given that Violet spends half of her life in medicated oblivion.
“Good luck with that,” Barbara retorts.
Later, Violet critiques the younger generation for its inability to hold marriages together, boasting that her own endured decades of challenges and traumas. Barbara has to remind her mother that Violet’s marriage ended after decades because her husband has drowned himself.
Paradoxically, the play feels as long as it does, largely because the power of subtext, of the unspoken, keeps getting punctured by the jokes. It doesn’t dig deeply enough to justify its length, but when it does make that subterranean plunge, and lays off the one-liners for a minute or two, the power of the drama, and of these terrific actors, rumbles through the theater with exquisite grandeur.
Parsons’ Violet is so convincingly bipolar, nobody can tell who they’re meeting whenever she appears. Husky-throated and careening between the faked vulnerability of a child and the attack-dog bark of a rabid pit bull, Parsons has created more than a character: She has created a dance with such physical ebbs and flows, it passes muster as a piece of choreography. Jeff Still is also grand as Barbara’s stoic, sensible husband, Bill Fordham. Amy Warren’s babbling Karen is a monument to self-deception, and as her fiancé, Laurence Lau tries to hit on his sister-in-law’s 14-year-old daughter (Emily Kinney) with an authenticity that redefines smarmy.
If there’s a 40-year-old Eugene O’Neill out there with a thunderously epic family drama to tell, I doubt he would be able to have his play produced today, certainly not in the regional theaters or in New York. Even with its jokes and physical farce, Letts’ tragedy-lite almost bankrupted Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre with its cast of 13. I doubt we’re a culture that can handle a more probing and somber examination of almost anything, for reasons having to do with diminishing attention spans, the various influences of iPhones and Twitter, and the economic imperatives of doing professional theater.
For these reasons, I’m grateful that Letts’ play is as good as it is, but that gratitude comes laced with regret for what we’ve become.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY | By TRACY LETTS | Presented by STEPPENWOLF THEATRE COMPANY and CENTER THEATRE GROUP at the AHMANSON THEATRE, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Through October 18 | (213) 972-4400