August: Osage County

augustStories that live on the Great Plains tend to cast their players in iconic silhouette. Chalk it up to the flat land in every direction.

Now, at the end of a very long journey into night, the shadow of Violet Weston trudges through her house in hunched, weary profile. “When everything is gone and disappeared, I’ll still be here,” she growls. So with grim humor and a bucket of dark wit, Chicago playwright Tracy Letts contributes a new chapter to a modern American story: how to survive in bustling solitude.

Letts’s boozy, bruising behemoth of a family drama needs little introduction; August: Osage County storms the Kennedy Center on its national tour, with a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama in one hand and a 2008 Tony Award for Best Play in the other. Ongoing director Anna D. Shapiro and her cast hold the colossal task of living up to the hype. And boy, do they knock it out of the park.

All involved have dug deep into Letts’ meaty, disquieting chronicle of loss and tortured love, and every brutal, hot-blooded scene in this three-act opus feels like it’s been tightened with a crescent wrench. For housing such a dyspeptic mix of black comedy and blacker tragedy, this production is perfectly tuned to hit the right notes: in one moment, finding truth in zany humor, and in the next, letting revelation rise to the top of a poisonous silence.

august3Violet (Estelle Parsons), the towering matriarch, is the one most often caught stirring the pot. The sudden disappearance of her alcoholic husband Beverly (Jon DeVries) has summoned relatives – notably her three adult daughters – to the Weston family’s old farmhouse outside Pawhuska (that would be 60 miles northwest of Tulsa, Oklahoma).

Stuck in a swirling cycle of sore memories and strong painkillers, Violet upholds her role as materfamilias by ruthlessly gutting the hopes of those under her roof. The hearts of her children prove as easy to crack as the child-proof caps on her prescription bottles. Letts casts her as the unblinking eye of a vicious family storm, upping tempers and popping downers until her eldest daughter Barbara (Shannon Cochran) throws an Osage coup d’etat and attempts to seize control of the house. The ensuing parlor conversation is less than therapeutic.

Violet may be juggling grief with addiction and the onset of cancer, but those aren’t the only balls aloft in this bleak family circus. Her middle daughter Ivy (Angelica Torn) is a modern-day Laura Wingfield, crippled by her mother’s caustic company. Her youngest daughter Karen (Amy Warren) is fawning over her new fiancée Steve (Laurence Lau), who slides from room to room sporting a Creepy Guy Mustache. As for headstrong Barbara, her marriage to Bill (Jeff Still) is on the rocks – they’re both college professors, just to fast-track the ennui – and their underage daughter Jean (Emily Kinney) has caught Steve’s roving eye. Little surprise, then, how dread descends when we observe these people preparing to sit at the same dinner table.

The drama is on full broil, but nothing’s dried up about these family feuds – they’re full of juicy zingers, one and all, drawing from a seemingly endless well of wit. This clan’s heightened eloquence guarantees that no one gets insulted the same way twice. When name-calling, they display almost Shakespearian powers of invention.

Some of the wordplay is a tad too instantaneous to be believed, and a few lines are real clunkers (“I can’t perpetuate these myths of family and sisterhood anymore!” wails Ivy…well, okay). Several of the characters, too, are one-dimensional. Karen is a flighty caricature, and the live-in assistant Johnna (DeLanna Studi) has little to do but gape at how quickly the household etiquette evaporates.

But at every crucial moment, the cast highlights the core human imbalance that fuels this diabolical soap opera: If you can’t help but share your ugly thoughts out loud, how can you still survive by relying on familial love for validation?

Somehow – and here’s the kicker – the show is a source of laughs throughout. It ain’t the rosiest of comedies (this will be clear by the time “mouth cancer” has come around as a good punch line) but a comedy it undoubtedly is. In large part that’s due to the wonderful Estelle Parsons, now 82 years old, who shines even through Violet’s druggy stupor with a range well earned through her work in film (she won an Academy Award for Bonnie and Clyde) and television (on the sitcom Roseanne for ten years). Shannon Cochran, too, proves a powerhouse performer as the despairing Barbara, who begins by the third act to ever so slowly, ever so sadly, take the bitter shape of her mother.

In a recent interview at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago (the home of this play’s premiere), Tracy Letts pondered his vocation. “Writing is very private,” he said. “And for me… the actual creative part of writing is very mysterious and intuitive.” Given the strength with which his thoughts on dysfunction thus far have crystallized into memorable, haunting theater, let’s cross our fingers and hope that he can keep spinning black-and-blue into gold.

August: Osage County

By Tracy Letts

Directed by Anna D. Shapiro

On national tour, produced by Steppenwolf Theatre Company at the Kennedy Center

Reviewed by Hunter Styles

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