August: Osage County
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 5, 2007
If you're ready for a shot of schadenfreude, if sensational family dysfunction is your bag... well, then Tracy Letts's new play August: Osage County is for you. This sprawling production—more than three hours in length, with a cast of 13—comes to Broadway from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company; it feels like a blueprint for an HBO mini-series (and in fact might be even more satisfying in that format). It's extremely well-crafted, very involving and, in its singular way, a great deal of fun. Is it grand theatre? Absolutely. Is it great drama? Definitely not.
The play takes place in the large country home of the Weston family in northern Oklahoma (in eponymous Osage County, a real place near the Kansas border). The family patriarch, Beverly, is a celebrated poet who hasn't written anything in decades; he was also a professor (now he's retired); in the first scene, he's introducing himself to a young Cheyenne woman named Johnna whom he will hire to be his new housekeeper, and to whom he explains the prevailing situation in this big house, namely, that he's an unrepentant alcoholic and his wife, Violet, is addicted to any number of painkillers and other drugs.
By the time we come to the second scene, Beverly has been missing for five days, and Ivy, Beverly and Violet's middle daughter, is trying to help her drug-addled mother cope with his absence. She is soon joined by her older sister Barbara, who arrives from Boulder, Colorado with her husband, Bill (we learn in short order that they are separated and that Bill is having an affair with one of his students at college), and their 14-year-old daughter, Jean. Also on hand are Violet's younger sister, Mattie Fae, and her husband Charlie. By the time the first act is over, word arrives that Beverly's boat was found washed up ashore someplace, and it becomes more and more likely that he won't ever be coming home again.
I don't want to give too much more away about what happens in this incident-heavy, plot-driven show. Suffice to say that, with the arrival of the third Weston sister Karen in Act Two, all hell will break loose in the house with astonishing regularity. There will be any number of confrontations and confessions, some of them quite surprising, that will involve everything from pedophilia and child abuse to incest and adultery. Lots of questions will be raised, and many will not be definitively answered. Will Bill and Barbara's marriage survive his affair? Did Beverly intend to commit suicide when he disappeared? Does it matter that Violet emptied the safe deposit box on the Monday following Beverly's disappearance?
It is, as I said, riveting entertainment, the kind of thing where events keep piling up that make you thankful you're watching someone else's messed-up family instead of your own. Director Anna D. Shapiro keeps things moving briskly and she's especially skillful in managing the frequent crowd scenes, when pockets of people are chatting (or, more likely, arguing) in different parts of the house simultaneously. The house, by the way, is neatly realized by scenic designer Todd Rosenthal, in a three-level set that represents several of the rooms of the house with one of the outer walls essentially stripped away; it's an efficient solution to the play's cinematic structure, though it necessarily renders big chunks of the action more or less remote, depending on where you're sitting in the auditorium. Costumes by Ana Kuzmanic are plentiful and naturalistic (if a bit too TV-glamorous); sound (Richard Woodbury), lighting (Ann G. Wrightson), and especially an evocative original score by David Singer all contribute mightily to the show's ambience and cumulative potency.
The actors are blessed, for the most part, with terrific roles that they sink their teeth into with relish: Francis Guinan, as Charlie, delivers an impressively natural turn as the play's most likable and untroubled character; other standouts include Amy Morton as the eldest daughter Barbara, Jeff Perry as her straying hubby Bill, and Rondi Reed as the busybody Mattie Fae. Deanna Dunagan seems to me to be far too well-put-together as Violet to convince us that she's playing a probably brain-damaged drug addict of long-standing; she is playing someone who feels utterly implausible, though, which brings me to my one significant issue with August: Osage County.
And that is it's complete lack of psychological depth. At one point in the play, Jean is watching a rerun of Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera, and I thought to myself, even the Phantom has a clear back story that explains his monstrous behavior; alas, none of the Westons or their kin are granted same by playwright Letts. We hear a couple of anecdotes about Violet's awful childhood, but not enough to help us even start to understand her addictive behavior, her meanness, the nature of her marriage or her damaged relationships with her children. For most of the other characters we get no information whatsoever, and without it we are forced to take their actions and reactions solely on faith, unable to assign clear motivation or to learn anything from their circumstances. It is, as I said at the top of this review, precisely the kind of writing that we've become accustomed to in TV mini-series, and it has its place; just don't come to August: Osage County expecting to find the deep emotional truths of an O'Neill or Chekhov play.
No, come to this expecting to find the author of gratuitously provoking works like Killer Joe and Bug at the top of his form, or, perhaps more accurately, in expansive form: this is a great big exciting breathless jaw-dropping adventure of a show, but—let's be honest—an entirely superficial one.