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A Matriarch After Your Attention, if Not Heart

Publication: The New York Times
Published: August 13, 2007
Client: Steppenwolf Theatre Company

By CHARLES ISHERWOOD

CHICAGO, Aug. 10 — For all her grace and gentility, Eugene O'Neill's Mary Tyrone was certainly a handful. Ditto Tennessee Williams's Amanda Wingfield and Lillian Hellman's Regina Giddens. Edward Albee's Martha is a mother you wouldn't even wish on an imaginary child.

Now an impressive new contender has emerged in the tormenting-female sweepstakes of the American theater. Welcome, please, Mrs. Violet Weston, the cancer-ridden, drug-addled, venom-spewing matriarch of "August: Osage County," a hugely entertaining (also just plain huge) new play by Tracy Letts at the Steppenwolf Theater Company here.

Like poor Mary in "Long Day's Journey Into Night," Violet spends a lot of her time in a chemically induced haze. Like the fluttery Amanda in "The Glass Menagerie," her mother love contains equal parts guilt and manipulation. Like Regina in "The Little Foxes," she is a master tactician. And like the soused Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," she has a tongue that could flay a horse at 10 paces.

But for unrestrained malice and unstoppable powers of emotional destruction, I am tempted to suggest that Violet puts all the rest in the shade. As played with savage astringency by Deanna Dunagan, she is also hypnotically watchable, a "what will she say next?" monster whose gleeful evisceration of her nearest and dearest in the course of three acts and three hours provides this gothic family saga with its fast-humming internal engine. I expect this bleak, black crowd-pleaser (yep) will barge its way onto Broadway sooner rather than later. The play and the Steppenwolf production, directed by Anna D. Shapiro, partake of the same dark energy as the dragon lady herself.

New York theatergoers may know Mr. Letts as the author of the trailer-trash gore-fest "Killer Joe" and the equally sanguinary psychological thriller "Bug," both of which had substantial Off Broadway runs. (Mr. Letts's third play, the tamer "Man From Nebraska," was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, but oddly it has not been produced in New York.) I for one am relieved to report that Mr. Letts continues to stanch the bloodletting in "August: Osage County," at least in literal terms.

Metaphorically, on the other hand, he pretty much never lets up. The play's opening scene is practically the only gentle one, as the paterfamilias Beverly Weston (Dennis Letts, the playwright's father), a former poet and professor who has retired into full-time alcoholism, interviews a young American Indian woman, Johnna (Kimberly Guerrero), he hopes to hire to take care of himself and his wife. As he puts it with eloquent clarity: "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."

By the next scene this genial, mordantly funny, T. S. Eliot- and John Berryman-quoting gentleman has mysteriously disappeared, leaving his new employee to perform the aforesaid duties for an increasingly crowded household. (The verse that really should be quoted in the play is Philip Larkin's famous dictum about how mum and dad really, um, screw you up.)

First to arrive is the Westons' middle daughter, the withdrawn, 44-year-old Ivy (Sally Murphy). She distracts Mama from worries about Daddy's disappearance by playing human dartboard for catty comments about her love life. Among Violet's more benign observations: "Your shoulders are slumped and your hair's all straight and you don't wear makeup. You look like a lesbian."

More diversion comes courtesy of Violet's blowsy sister Mattie Fae, played to the repellent hilt by Rondi Reed, who shares her sister's lacerating tongue (though she hasn't got the symbolic cancer of the mouth — yet). She browbeats her milquetoast husband, Charlie (Francis Guinan), and runs down her adult son, Little Charles (Ian Barford). "Little Charles isn't complicated," Mattie Fae snaps when Charlie compares him with the missing Beverly. "He's just unemployed."

When the Westons' oldest daughter, Barbara (Amy Morton), arrives from Colorado, with newly estranged husband and pot-smoking teenage daughter in tow, she tries to restore some order to the fractious atmosphere, though the handfuls of pills Violet keeps downing make this a challenging task. Last to arrive is the youngest, Karen (Mariann Mayberry), a chatty redhead whose scattered life has at last come together.

Having assembled three generations of the Weston family under the eaves of the family home in rural Oklahoma, Mr. Letts merrily sets about exposing the pathologies that have long drawn them toxically together and driven them apart.

What has he got to offer? You name it. Drug abuse and alcoholism are mere palate-cleansers for this clan. The many other pathogens that can corrode the "cruel covenant" of American marriage and domestic life (to use Beverly's poetic term) are all accounted for. Adultery? Plenty. Pedophilia? Check. Emotional and physical abuse? Yup. Special bonus horror: Incest!

At regular intervals new revelations are dished out from the play's heaping casserole of secrets, sorrows and betrayals, in scenes that often build to hair-raising emotional standoffs or the occasional screaming match. There is nary an unrewarding role in the play (well, maybe the saintly Johnna's), and the Steppenwolf cast chews into the material with relish.

Although its epic length and its knotty tale of inbred loves and hates ring with echoes of various classic miserable-family plays (perhaps particularly Sam Shepard's "Buried Child"), Mr. Letts is as yet more a skillful entertainer than a true visionary or a dramatic poet. "August: Osage County" is a ripsnorter full of blistering, funny dialogue, acid-etched characterizations and scenes of no-holds-barred emotional combat, but I would not say it possesses the penetrating truth or the revelatory originality of a fully achieved work of art.

Like Martin McDonagh, with whom he shares a taste for both stinging humor and streaming blood (Mr. McDonagh has said he drew inspiration for his plays after seeing "Killer Joe" in London), Mr. Letts is so intoxicated by bad behavior and its poisoned roots that his view of experience can sometimes seem distorted. At their most sensational, his plays do not comment on or illuminate life so much as they offer an escape from it into lurid comic worlds too corroded by human bile to be mistaken for the real one. "August: Osage County" marks a powerful step forward, but it is still more a potboiler than a heart-scouring tragedy.

A bent for the lurid has not, of course, stopped the gifted Mr. McDonagh from rising quickly to the ranks of the theater's most acclaimed (and produced) contemporary playwrights. With this tastily nasty, ferociously enjoyable tale of a family shredded to tatters by inherited legacies of pain and suffering, Mr. Letts appears ready to emerge as a major contender in American playwriting himself.

AUGUST
Osage County

By Tracy Letts; directed by Anna D. Shapiro; sets by Todd Rosenthal; costumes by Ana Kuzmanic; lighting by Ann G. Wrightson; sound by Richard Woodbury; music by David Singer; dramaturgy by Edward Sobel; fight choreographer, Chuck Coyl; dialect coach, Cecilie O'Reilly; stage manager, Deb Styer; assistant stage manager, Michelle Medvin. Presented by Steppenwolf, Martha Lavey, artistic director; David Hawkanson, executive director. At Steppenwolf, 1650 North Halsted Street, Chicago; (312) 335-1650. Through Aug. 26. Running time: 3 hours, 18 minutes.

WITH: Ian Barford (Little Charles), Deanna Dunagan (Violet Weston), Kimberly Guerrero (Johnna Monevata), Francis Guinan (Charlie Aiken), Fawn Johnstin (Jean Fordham), Dennis Letts (Beverly Weston), Mariann Mayberry (Karen Weston), Amy Morton (Barbara Fordham), Sally Murphy (Ivy Weston), Jeff Perry (Bill Fordham), Rondi Reed (Mattie Fae Aiken), Rick Snyder (Steve Heidebrecht) and Troy West (Sheriff Deon Gilbeau).

 

Amy Morton, top, and Deanna Dunagan in “August: Osage County” in Chicago.
Photo by Michael Brosilow

 

From left, Fawn Johnstin, Jeff Perry and Amy Morton in “August: Osage County,” a new play by Tracy Letts.
Photo by Michael Brosilow

 

 
 

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