Sunday, November 11, 2007
August: Osage County
As soon as I walked into Broadway's Imperial Theatre and got a look at the set for "August: Osage County," I was captivated. It was the most fascinating set I'd ever seen on a stage - the interior of a three-story house crammed with shabby furniture, taped-up windows and books piled up everywhere. Created by Todd Rosenthal, it just looked so lived-in, so real. What a perfect setting for the messy events that were about to unfold.
Playwright Tracy Letts, director Anna D. Shapiro and fellow members of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company have created a portrait of American family life that is searing, emotional, hilarious, witty, tragic and oh so very true. I was mesmerized by it and I can only imagine that this is how audiences felt when they saw "Long Day's Journey Into Night" or "Death of A Salesman." "August: Osage County" definitely belongs in a league with those American classics. The 3 1/2 hours I spent in the theater just flew by.
The play is set during a sweltering Oklahoma summer, and you can feel the heat on the actor's faces. It opens with patriarch Beverly Weston talking to Johnna Monevata, a young Native American woman he's hired to look after his wife, Violet. Weston, liquor bottle at hand, is played by Dennis Letts, the playwright's father. He explains that he drinks and his wife, who has mouth cancer, takes an assortment of pills. A poet, Weston gives the woman, played by Kimberly Guerrero, a volume of poetry by T.S. Eliot. (Interestingly, Eliot's first wife, whom he deserted, suffered from physical and emotional problems and was eventually committed to an asylum).
From the moment she enters, Violet Weston, played by the remarkable Deanna Dunagan, creates an unforgettable portrait of a sick, addicted, bitter, miserable, lonely woman. Still in her pajamas, her hair tousled, she stumbles down the staircase, her walk off-kilter, her speech slurred, her face twisted into a permanent scowl. Not only does she have mouth cancer, but almost everything that comes out of her mouth is acerbic, vindictive and cruel. Letts told TimeOut New York that Violet is based on his grandmother. When he finished the play, he gave it to his mother, novelist Billie Letts, to read, and her first comment was, “I think you’ve been very kind to my mother.”
When Beverly Weston disappears, the couple's three daughters are left to cope with their mother. In many ways, the relationship between Violet Weston and her daughters is the heart of the play. Violet Weston is judgmental, overly critical, and desperately afraid of being abandoned. And her daughters are desperately afraid of having to deal with her.
"August: Osage County" is about the lives and struggles of four generation of American women, a trajectory that runs from Violet Weston's own (and unseen) mother, through her life, and that of her daughters and granddaughter. Letts writes with razor sharpness, wit, empathy and total believability. My only criticism is that he writes so well for female characters, the male characters end up a little overshadowed.
Barbara, the eldest daughter, played by Amy Morton, lives in Colorado with her philandering husband, Bill (played by Steppenwolf co-founder Jeff Perry) and pot-smoking daughter Jean. Ivy, the middle child, played by Sally Murphy, lives nearby and is afraid and resentful that she will have to deal with her mother alone once her sisters leave. Karen, the flighty youngest daughter, played by Mariann Mayberry, lives in Miami with her fiance, Steve, played by Brian Kerwin. Also in the picture are Violet's sister, Mattie Fae, played by Rondi Reed, her husband, Charlie, played by Francis Guinan, and their son, Little Charles, played by Ian Barford. Madeleine Martin, who plays Jean and Troy West, portraying Sheriff Deon Gilbeau, round out the cast. Everyone except Martin and Kerwin are veterans of the play's sold-out Chicago run and they are all superb.
Letts gives Morton some of the best dialogue in the play. Her dilemma is all-too-recognizable for many American women, caught in the "sandwich" generation, struggling to take care of her child and her aging, increasingly needy mother, while holding down a job and trying to salvage her marriage. Her outburst midway through the play, when she's at her wit's end from the strain, is devastating. As someone who's experienced some of that same strain, I was blown away by the honesty of Morton's performance.
Guerrero also deserves special mention. She's probably best known for playing Jerry's girlfriend Winona in a very funny "Seinfeld" episode, "The Cigar Store Indian." In "August: Osage County," she hardly has any lines, yet I felt myself drawn to her no matter where she was on stage, bringing food from the kitchen to the dining room, or simply curled up on her bed on the top floor of the house, reading the book Beverly gave her. She is the servant who is almost unseen and yet sees everything. In a key piece of dialogue, she reminds us of the importance of family ties. I thought she was remarkable - because she had so little to say, yet her presence said so much.
Through the course of 3 1/2 hours, we learn how angry this family is at each other, the secrets they have kept from each other, and the ways they have hurt and betrayed each other. Failure casts a pall over this house: marriages are failing, parents are disappointed in their children, and we learn that after his first, early success, Beverly Weston never publishes a second volume of poetry.
But "August: Osage County" is more than angry outbursts. The banter early on between Mattie Fae and her husband, Charlie, is hilarious. And Letts has some very pointed, witty observations about how the Greatest and the Baby Boom generations view each other. "If you worked as hard as we did, you'd be president," sneers Violet. What made them the Greatest Generation, Barbara asks sarcastically, "because they were poor and hated the Nazis?" Everybody hated the f---ing Nazis."
Before I saw "August: Osage County," I only knew the Steppenwolf Theatre Company through its famous alumni - including Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, Joan Allen and John Mahoney. I walked out in awe of Steppenwolf and this amazingly talented group of actors. Regional theaters like Steppenwolf truly are national treasures. Where else, after all, would a 3 1/2-hour serious play by a relatively unknown playwright have a chance of getting produced, much less transferred to Broadway?
I'm afraid that once the stagehands strike ends, it will be serious plays like "August: Osage County," without recognizable stars, that will suffer. And that would be a shame. So if you're planning a trip to Broadway, please put this riveting, thought-provoking work at the top of your list. It deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. I guarantee you will see people - and situations - that you know from your own life. You will be thoroughly entertained and thoroughly moved.