BY HEDY WEISS, Theater Critic
In his massive, multigenerational drama "August: Osage County," now in a blisteringly acted world premiere at the Steppenwolf Theatre, playwright Tracy Letts has channeled Eugene O'Neill's masterwork, "Long Day's Journey Into Night" to devise a startling three-act, 3½-hour version to call his own.
In the process, he has transplanted the fabled drama of the Tyrone family -- the famously haunted, fog-shrouded East Coast Irish immigrant clan of the early 20th century -- to tell the story of the Westons, an equally bedeviled clan, with pioneer roots, whose twisted emotional history plays out on the sun-baked plains of Oklahoma at the dawn of the 21st century.
Letts' hugely ambitious drama -- intensely literate yet laced with more than enough Jerry Springer shockeroos to titillate the masses -- involves a latter-day Chekhovian trio of sisters, rather than O'Neill's pair of love-hate linked brothers. But as with O'Neill, the patriarch, Beverly Weston (played by Dennis Letts, the playwright's father), is a faded artist and world-class boozer -- a semi-famous poet in the 1960s who has spent most of his life in academia. And again, as with O'Neill, there is a matriarch, Violet (Deanna Dunagan, in the performance of a lifetime), who is both insightful victim and wild-eyed predator -- a prescription drug addict in the throes of cancer treatment. A viperish, ferociously lonely woman who secretly dances to an Eric Clapton beat, her secrets erupt in this saga which, to paraphrase the play's literary guidepost, T.S. Eliot, evokes the way the past lives on in the present.
'AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY'
When: Through Aug. 26
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
Phone: (312) 335-1650
Letts (whose previous works include "Killer Joe," "Bug" and "Man From Nebraska") is both an actor and playwright, and he understands how to create lip-smacking good roles. Here he seems to have custom-tailored many of them for the Steppenwolf ensemble (eight of the 13 cast members are part of "the tribe"). But it also may be that under the ideally choreographed direction of Anna D. Shapiro, the actors are so dazzlingly good it just seems they were given form-fit roles.
Letts' shrewdly imagined opening scene is a clever setup as Beverly talks with Johnna (Kimberly Guerrero), a young Native American applying for the job of housekeeper, and hands her a volume of Eliot's poetry for good measure. She'll need it.
What Beverly fails to tell Johnna is that he is leaving. Unable to commit his wife to a mental institution, as Eliot did, and wondering if he can drown himself, as the poet John Berryman did, he has at least selected a steward for his crumbling home.
When he does finally "vanish," the extended family gathers at the homestead (Todd Rosenthal's three-story house recalls that for a related Steppenwolf production, Sam Shepard's "Buried Child"). Barbara (Amy Morton), the menopausal oldest daughter, arrives with her estranged husband Bill (Jeff Perry) and pot-smoking teenage daughter Jean (Fawn Johnstin). So do her fortysomething sister, Ivy (Sally Murphy), divorced and lost, and her other sibling, Miami-based Karen (Mariann Mayberry), whose older fiance, Steve (Rick Snyder), is a true creep.
Also along for the ride are Violet's brashly vulgar sister, Mattie Fae (Rondi Reed), her long-suffering husband Charlie (Francis Guinan), their 37-year-old emotionally damaged son, Little Charles (Ian Barford),+ and the local sheriff (Troy West).
The mix is toxic -- a stew of suicide, addiction, adultery, divorce, pedophilia and incest laced with guilt, denial, blindness, avarice and moments of piercing self-awareness. Everyone is damaged, but the blood knots (and they are tighter than you might want to know) cannot be fully severed.
Letts is a keen observer of the way the past oozes into the present and future. And while each of his characters has a vivid identity, each also has a dozen richly contradictory aspects to his or her nature, played in the full richness of their colors by the Steppenwolf actors. The playwright also serves up some blackly comic laughs, too, just to clear the air from time to time.
The glories of Dunagan's performance are too great to enumerate here. Suffice it to say this performance should make her a late-career star. Morton matches her at every turn with an emotionally rabid portrayal. And Guinan, countering Reed's volcanic rage, sneaks in there at moments with just enough tenderness to give you hope for the human race after all.