Monday, June 9, 2008

Reading August: Osage County

I read today that Estelle Parsons will be taking over Deanna Dunagan's role as family matriarch Violet Weston in August: Osage County on June 17. Lots of cast members will be leaving this month - Molly Regan succeeds Rondi Reed as Mattie Fae Aiken, Robert Foxworth takes over the role of Charlie Aiken from Francis Guinan, Jim True-Frost replaces Ian Barford as Little Charles and Frank Wood will play Jeff Perry's role of Bill Fordham.

(Regan and True-Frost will come from the ranks of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. After giving us the wonderful original cast of August: Osage County all I could think of was, does that place have an apparently endless supply of incredible acting talent or what! Hopefully every member of Steppenwolf will have a chance to rotate into this play during what I hope will be a long Broadway run.)

I'm not sure if I'll get a chance to see the play again, but I'd be especially interested in watching another actress tackle the role of Violet. At 81, Academy Award winner Parsons is actually older than what playwright Tracy Letts had in mind. He specifies that Violet is 65, and Dunagan is 68. I've always thought of Violet as someone who grew up during the Great Depression, and Parsons, who was born in 1927, would certainly have a stronger link to that period.

Coincidentally, I read August: Osage County today after having it in my to-read pile for a couple of months. Mostly, it reinforced how I felt when I saw it performed on Broadway last fall: Letts has done an amazing job exploring family relationships, the pressures on women's lives, the divide between baby boomer children and their Greatest Generation parents. There's lots of witty, biting dialog that makes for a quick read, and makes the 3 1/2-hour play go by very quickly on stage. I felt so much sympathy for the Weston daughters, who are facing their own anxieties about growing older.

Normally when I'm reading a novel, I'm creating my own picture of what the characters are like. This time, I couldn't help but think of the actors I saw portraying those characters on stage. Some were pretty similar to the way I would have pictured them even if I'd never seen the play. But where Dunagan summoned Violet from, I can't even imagine. She brought those words to life in a way beyond anything I could have pictured. Her performance was truly remarkable.

August: Osage County is sometimes compared with Eugene O'Neill's masterpiece, Long Day's Journey into Night. I think they do have a lot in common. Both are semi-autobiographical. Although in O'Neill's case, it's a lot more than semi. Both feature a dysfunctional family, including a mother battling addiction. Although Letts' short, snappy dialog seems more modern, more late 20th century.

Both James Tyrone and Violet Weston grew up poor, and there's an intense, visceral fear of being poor again, a fear that their children clearly don't understand, simply dismissing it out of hand. But that fear drives Violet's actions in a very clear way. There's a great scene where she talks about the poverty and deprivation in which she and her husband grew up and pointedly tells her daughters, "You worked as hard as us, you'd all be president."

Violet and Mattie Fae are sisters who never seem to cut their children any slack. Reading the play, I was reminded again how absolutely vicious they are toward their children. They're constantly taunting them. Mattie Fae's son, Little Charles, can't do anything right. Violet does everything she can to make her daughters feel guilty. Yet her criticisms of them - what they wear, how they live their lives, just repel them and drive them further away.

If there's one complaint I have about August: Osage County it's that the male characters get a little shortchanged in terms of character development. I do wish Letts had spent more time with Charlie Aiken. Reading the play reminded me how thrilling and heroic Charlie is when he stands up to his wife and admonishes her for the way she constantly berates their son.

The printed version of August: Osage County has an epigraph, a quote from Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men that talks about how parents are constantly trying to reclaim their adult children. You can certainly see it in the relationship between Violet Weston and her three daughters, in Violet's fear at being left alone. And her daughters are afraid of being the one left to care for their mother.

When we're were born, Warren wrote, our parents lost something of themselves, and they are going to try and get it back. They are desperate to have their child sit in a chair for a couple of hours, then go to bed under the same roof. "They know they can't get it all back but they will get as big a chunk out of you as they can. And the good old family reunion, with picnic dinner under the maples, is very much like diving into the octopus tank at the aquarium." Hmmm, I wonder if Violet is the octopus?

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