August: Osage County

Tracy Lett's 2007 Great American Family Drama, or so we'd believe from the national press, four Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize, has pulled in at last to the Ahmanson Theatre in a Steppenwolf Theatre Company production, handily staged by Anna D. Shapiro. (Steppenwolf was the company that commissioned the work.) The drama, set in Oklahoma, consists of almost four hours of revelations about a truly fucked-up family, liberally peppered with dashes of Gothic humor. Oh we love our gothic family epics. Pulitzer Prizes have gone to Crimes of the Heart, The Kentucky Cycle, and now this. We meet Beverly Weston (Jon DeVries), a crusty, hard-drinking T.S. Elliot-quoting member of literati pontificating to his newly hired Cheyenne Indian housekeeper (DeLanna Studi) about the point and pointlessness of existence. (She will eventually be seen sitting cross-legged on a bed, perched at the pinnacle of Todd Rosenthal's three-tier set, as a kind of metaphor of the stoic, silent and dignified tribe these resident clowns superseded. Beverly is hiring the sweet-natured woman to care for his cancer-afflicted spouse (Estelle 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, on 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. He used to believe that at least it had promise. "Now it's just a shit hole." The reach is a bit of a strain — present a nutty, masochistic family onstage and then say, hey this is the U.S.A. As funny as much of the farce may be, the play feels as long as it is largely because the power of subtext, of the unspoken, keeps getting punctured by the jokes. It doesn't dig deep enough to justify its length, but when it does make that subterranean plunge, and lays off the one-liners for a span or two, the power of the drama, and of these terrific actors, rumbles through the theater with a kind of exquisite grandeur. Ahmanson Theater, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; Tues.-Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through October 18. (213) 972-4400. (Steven Leigh Morris)
Tuesdays-Fridays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., Sept. 13, 1 & 6:30 p.m. Starts: Sept. 9. Continues through Oct. 18, 2009


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