by Sam Juliano
Tracy Letts’s Tony Award winning play August: Osage County is one of a line of plays about dysfunctional families who fight their demons, which translates to drugs, booze, adultery, guilt and severe depression. Eugene O Neil’s Long Day’s Journey into Night comes to mind first, but Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? also deal with these issues most compellingly. The production, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, is presented in nearly three-and-a-half hours, which is daunting for any show, much less this heady stuff, but it’s carried by some raw and funny dialogue, some corrosive characterizations and some bare-boned emotional battles among family members.
The play brings together three generations of the Weston family, who are gathered in Oklahoma. The pathologies present in the characters are exposed, and it becomes abundantly clear that these afflictions are what both brought the these people together and drove them apart.
The opening scene is the play’s tamest and most (relatively) uninvolving, at least from an audience standpoint, as a retired poet and professor, who has now degenerated into alcoholism, interviews a woman that he intends to be a caretaker for both himself and his wife.
He says bluntly: The facts are: My wife takes pills, and I drink. And these facts have over time made burdensome the maintenance of traditional American routine: paying of bills, purchase of goods, cleaning of clothes or carpets.” Basically the scene is a long monologue aimed at getting immediate insurance for his cancer-stricken wife, who is a drug-addict.
The play’s elaborate set, an old-fashioned three story “dollhouse” gives the false impression that perhaps there might be some kind of Cinderella story unfolding, but these suppositions are quickly dashed with the descent down the circular staircase of Violet Weston (the professor’s wife), a frail woman who is hunched over. This woman, who is soon seen as a chain-smoker, has mouth cancer, which seems to a metaphorical reference to her acid tongue which both utters some of the best lines in the play, as well as its most painful and razor-edged. The adage “the apples don’t fall far from the tree” is apt in the unfolding of the disintegration of a family that has some deep-rooted and irreparable issues. One daughter Ivy, who lives nearby, is recipient to mean-spirited critcisms of her not being married. Violet says something like: “You’re the prettiest of my three girls but you always look like such a mope….you’re shoulders are slumped and your hair’s all straight and you don’t wear makeup. You look like a lesbian.” In actuality in one of the film’s dark secrets that won’t be unveiled here, Ivy does have a man in her life.
Another daughter, Barbara, who lives in Colorado with her husband of twenty-three years, Bill (who is apparently having an affair with one of his students) and their pot-smoking teenage daughter is a fly in the face of two college professors. Karen seems to have a better life, but she is also encountering some relationship problems.
Of course in this kind of work, nothing is left in secret, and even incest is brought into the mix. The business of people telling of their angst and failures much resembles the gay-themed The Boys and the Band by Mort Crowley. The central show-stopping role of course is Violet, and veteran Estelle Parsons (above) gives a commanding, authoritative performance, utilizing a gravel voice and remarkable physical agility to this admitted actor’s dream of a role. The ever-affable John Cullum, who disappeared after that first act was charismatic, but the volume is that scene was too low and difficult to negotiate. The three daughters, played by Johanna Day, Dee Pelletier and Amy Warren give solid turns, as does Madeleine Martin as the teen, Jean Fordham. This is the perfect example of how “ensemble acting” can be near-perfect, and for a provocative play like Osage County, this is nearly the entire ball of wax, so to speak, especially with the excellent writing.
The one-set design of the house is a stage wonder, and it kind of amplifies the various interchanges, no matter where in the house they are enacted. The front left with the table seems to be the most oft-used stage real estate. But there is nothing complicated about the staging at all, and Chuck Coyl’s choreography included some rather startling movements by some of the actors. Ms. Shapiro, who has some successful shows under her belt, brought the elements together here to create a play of lasting resonance.
Yep, this is depressing stuff, but when you spice it up with some humor and big moments, you have a clear winner. August: Osage County of course is more than that. It won 2007’s Tony for Best New Play. It’ll be around awhile, of that much I am certain.
Note: I saw “August: Osage County” on Wednesday evening, November 19th at the Music Box Theatre on 45th Street with Lucille, Broadway Bob and Patty Mesisca. Both Patty and Bob had already seen it once before and of course were big fans. They managed autographs afterwards on this blustery wintry evening in the Big Apple. Massive traffic going in forced us to opt for the Holland Tunnel, and we were unable to stop at a Restaurant, instead settling for vegetable salads at a pizzeria around the corner from the theatre. The show had two intermissions.