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picture - August: Osage CountyTheater Review

by Harvey Perr

published December 5, 2007


August:  Osage County

now playing on Broadway at the Imperial Theater

through March 9, 2008


Dad drinks. Mom is a drug addict. It’s August and the house is overheated because Mom likes it that way and Dad is used to having Mom have her way for so long now that excessive sweating is second nature to him. “Life is long,” Dad says, turning long into a two-syllable word. “T.S. Eliot,” he adds, because even a cliché becomes a quote if it has been written down by someone with poetic authority, someone who therefore deserves credit for doing so. All right. “Life is lo-ong.” - Tracy Letts.


And to prove just how lo-ong life may seem, Mr. Letts has written a lo-ong play – three acts long, in fact, which is about as unfashionable these days as galoshes – that definitely takes its time. And, for this singular act of theatrical chutzpah, Mr. Letts deserves, and earns – from this reviewer at least – all the praise that can be heaped upon a playwright without smothering him. Not only that, but the play, “August: Osage County,” peopled with thirteen (count them, thirteen) characters, comes to us not with a cast of familiar Broadway heavyweights, but with its original cast, most of them unknown to us, from the estimable Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, where they have performed it for four months. And they have bravely brought it to Broadway, where that sort of thing – once upon a time a common enough experience on Broadway – is now as rare as an orchid growing in the Arctic.


I will get to the actors soon enough. The play is obviously the thing here. And it is quite a play, the saga of the Weston family of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, one very hot summer, when Dad disappears and the family comes to support Mom in her distress (such as it is, given the number of drugs she takes to suppress the pain). While there, the sheriff – this is a small town and everyone knows the sheriff as well as (if not better than) they know each other – arrives to tell them that Dad has checked into a motel and committed suicide. This brings the whole family, from near and far, to the funeral and a series of confrontations that unveil and reveal the truths behind the lies they have been sharing for far too long.  There is a great power struggle between mother and the oldest daughter, both of whom seek control of the family with such no-holds-barred zeal that it doesn’t take much to see that they need control because neither one of them has much, if any, self-control. There’s  pot-smoking, booze-drinking, dish-breaking, TV-watching, maybe even incest. It comes as no surprise, given the origins of their dysfunction, laid out by Dad in the very first scene in one of the funniest monologues of the evening. This clan goes well beyond dysfunction; hurting each other seems almost a game, at least the way Mom plays it. And, if truth be told, they are just a step or two above what one supposes is meant by “trailer trash.” But they are, of course – and very poignantly so – as recognizable as any family in any great American play about family life. Go ahead. Name one great American play that is not, in one way or another, about a dysfunctional family!


Is this a great American play? One hesitates to go that far. It may be a bit too long. It may traverse the road to greatness by making a whistle stop along the way towards soap opera. We may find out too much about some characters and not enough about others. The lights may go out just a few minutes later than is clearly called for. But this play has life in it, rude and raw and funny and heartbreaking, and there is no mistaking it for anything but the real thing.  It is hard not to cheer a play that makes you feel so good about being in the theater again.


As for the virtue of moving a cast intact from one arena to another, you need only see the cast of this play, moving through the maze of the ramshackle house, which Todd Rosenthal has created for this production, as if they have lived in it all their lives, connecting with each other as if they have been in the same family for ages, each and every relationship so clearly defined that we feel as if we are indeed pushed up against them until we squirm in their presence and even, on occasion, gasp for air. But we never want to get away from them either. It would be a little like giving up on one’s own family. In short, there is not a weak link in the entire masterful ensemble. Under Anna D. Shapiro’s always astute, always tough, sometimes tender direction, each actor is part of a rich mosaic, and if some actors seem a bit more inspired – Amy Morton’s troubled but bossy eldest daughter, Rondi Reed’s blowsy aunt, Madeleine Martin’s pot-smoking teen, Dennis Letts’ alcoholic patriarch, Jeff Perry’s long-suffering husband – it is due to the richness of the writing of their particular characters.


And there is no richer character than Violet Weston, the drug-addled matriarch, she of the wicked tongue and the bruised heart, who is to this play what Mary Tyrone is to “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”  And Deanna Dunagan will be remembered whenever one considers the great performances of our time for her altogether extraordinary creation of this character, from her strange way of maneuvering a staircase to the precise way she makes her spine straighten, even as the drugs she consumes are taking their toll. Flinty and murderous one minute, a cruel little child the next, Dunagan commands the stage. And if Violet Weston can control neither herself nor her family, Deanna Dunagan nevertheless controls the play.


And, finally, Tracy Letts joins the short list of truly exciting new American playwrights with “August:Osage County.” Nobody seriously interested in the future of theater can afford to miss it.


harveyperr @


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