By Kerry Reid
IN AN INTERVIEW with American Theatre magazine a few
years ago, up-and-coming New York playwright Noah Haidle
said, "I don't want to see any representation or
mimesis of reality on stage. That's just outdated and
can be done so much better in film and TV." This
attitude has been gaining currency over the last couple
of decades, but thank God Tracy Letts hasn't noticed
or we might not have one of the best American plays
of the last ten years receiving its world premiere at
Steppenwolf. Even such finely crafted, disturbing films
about troubled families as Darren Aronofsky's Requiem
for a Dream and Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale
can't match the searing emotions and thematic brilliance
of August: Osage County, a departure from Letts's earlier
work in its classical structure and epic scope.
August: Osage County is heartbreaking in its attention
to emotional nuance and captivating in its gruff compassion.
It's also riotously funny. Set in a small town, it inevitably
inspires comparison with such masterworks as Eugene
O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night and Chekhov's
Three Sisters, but it never rides on the coattails of
those plays. This work stands on its own.
Letts breaks every rule about holding a contemporary
audience's attention, using the classic three-act structure
(with two intermissions) and taking three and a half
hours to unfold his tale of the monumentally troubled
Weston clan of Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Anna D. Shapiro's
beautifully orchestrated staging features a cast of
13, many of them Steppenwolf regulars at the height
of their powers and capacity for vulnerability.
The play's elegiac tone comes from T.S. Eliot's "The
Hollow Men." Family patriarch and retired academic
Beverly (played with soulful weariness by Letts's own
father, Dennis) quotes from the poem in the first scene,
while he's interviewing a young Native American woman,
Johnna Monevata, to be the housekeeper and caretaker
for his cancer-stricken wife, Vi. Beverly explains the
troubled marriage Eliot had with his first wife, Vivienne,
to Johnna and gives her a book of Eliot's poems.
Quoting poetry is all Beverly can do -- he no longer
writes it, and his one acclaimed collection came out
40 years earlier. As his prospects vanished, Beverly
and Vi became locked in emotional warfare fortified
by pills for her and liquor for him. By the second scene
Beverly has mysteriously disappeared. Alarmed, a host
of family members -- new combatants armed with devastating
revelations -- enters the oppressive house: it's an
unbearably hot August, and Vi keeps the place un-air-conditioned
and tapes the blinds shut.
Eldest daughter Barbara arrives with her own estranged
academic husband: he's just left her for a student only
a few years older than their pot-smoking 14-year-old
daughter. Then there's the mousy, secretive middle daughter,
who receives news of stunning proportions, and the manic
youngest sibling, who brings along her tool of a boyfriend.
Vi's hard-bitten sister, guileless brother-in-law, and
beaten-down nephew round out the roster in this prairie
version of the House of Atreus. The local sheriff is
the classical messenger bearing bad tidings.
During this family crisis Johnna keeps the food coming
and provides a quiet source of support, especially for
the teenage girl. Yet Letts avoids the temptation to
turn her into a shaman, and Kimberly Guerrero plays
the role with admirably subtle, watchful matter-of-factness.
Johnna's character might seem underdeveloped -- all
we know is that her parents are dead and she needs a
job. In other words, she's like legions of working-class
women of color who make money as home health-care workers.
As an emotional cyclone whirls through Todd Rosenthal's
cleverly constructed three-story cutaway set, Johnna
sits quietly in her attic room, reading first Eliot,
then Beverly's slim tome. It's her nonjudgmental outsider
status that allows her to deliver the play's final benediction/curse
-- a lullaby that chillingly revisits "The Hollow
The cancer afflicting Vi is in her mouth -- and she's
the source of the most rancorous revelations. As Vi,
Deanna Dunagan gives one of the most horrifyingly beautiful
performances I've ever seen. Martha in Who's Afraid
of Virginia Woolf? is like a cuddly, wisecracking Eve
Arden by comparison. But Vi isn't pure evil -- she's
burdened with her own abusive childhood and mourns the
loss of her brief happiness with Beverly, when his literary
promise was untarnished. "We lived too hard and
rose too high," she tells her daughters. She's
passed her bitterness on to Barbara, nearly as shattering
a character as Vi in Amy Morton's performance.
Given the firsthand knowledge most have of the importance
of gallows humor during times of upheaval, the black
comedy of August: Osage County isn't exactly a surprise.
But few American playwrights are as adept at that mixture
as Letts. Barbara, fed up with hearing about how hard
her parents' generation had it, barks out, "Why
were they 'the Greatest Generation?' Because they were
poor and hated Nazis?" The humor comes not only
from Letts's ripostes but from ingenious bits of stage
business, like the highly incongruous ringtone of a
cell phone during a family prayer. The only bits that
don't really work are a couple of scenes involving physical
combat. When people are this good at hurting one another
with words, fisticuffs are almost a relief.
The wrong director and cast might have turned the play's
delicate balance of deep-rooted sorrow and outrageously
funny family pettiness into a cartoon of dysfunction,
like an extended-play version of Mama's Family or a
Beth Henley-style show full of chicken-fried wackiness.
Shapiro masterfully handles the overlapping dialogue
and multiple agendas, and the performers give their
complex characters an affecting humanity. All suffer
from the syndrome of thwarted dreams: instead of having
the blues, Barbara says, they have "the Plains."
By the end, when all but two people have left the house,
a line from another Eliot poem, "Ash Wednesday,"
came to mind: "We are glad to be scattered, we
did little good to each other."
August: Osage County
August: Osage County
When Through 8/26: Tue-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 3 and 7:30
Where Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted