THEATER REVIEW BY CHRIS JONES, Theater Critic
Given his lip-smacking relish for the agonizing unpeeling of familial pain, it's doubtful that Tracy Letts will be declared the official playwright of the state of Oklahoma any time soon. The Sooners already gave their hearts to that romantic 1943 musical set within their nascent borders, and nobody will want to see "August: Osage County" performed in the Tulsa schools.
But with this staggeringly ambitious -- and, for my money, staggeringly successful -- three-act domestic opus for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Letts has penned a major, not-to-be-missed new American work that eulogizes the perversely nurturing dysfunction of family life on the Plains as surely as it skewers the arid absurdities of its underpinning.
And with the help of director Anna D. Shapiro, Letts has built a vehicle for the great Chicago actress Deanna Dunagan, who plays the caustic Weston family matriarch, presiding over a grown trio of sisters who've rushed home to Pawhuska to find out why their father, a sometime writer and constant drinker, has suddenly disappeared. Popping pills, telling truths and exploding her kids' inadequate defenses, Dunagan spits out the kind of brilliantly acidic performance that will be remembered in this town for years to come.
If you'll pardon the inherent overstatement and reductionism, "August" is like an Oklahoman "Long Day's Journey Into Night" shoved into a blender with Quentin Tarantino (with added Lillian Hellman and Jonathan Franzen syrups). Remarkably, the strangely sweet resultant milkshake re-energizes the great American tradition of the pseudo-memoir about growing up among the parental crazies, because it flavors its recognizable home truths with enough sin, lies and black comedy to keep your eyes popped out on stalks for nearly 3 1/2 hours.
Until now, Letts ("Bug," "Killer Joe") was best known for the comic-gothic thriller. And "August" has recognizably cheeky parentage. Murder is always on the cards. Letts' actual father, Dennis Letts, plays the father who causes all this trouble. And to make the point that his signature Weston family lives on purloined land, Letts brazenly includes a Native American character, deliciously played by Kimberly Guerrero, who literally lives in the attic and comes down to do the white man's cooking.
Despite the inside jokes, the most impressive aspect of this unexpectedly compassionate play is its hubristic but immensely appealing attempt to explain the paradoxes of life that make people go bananas in the oft-forgotten middle of the country. Letts captures the dangerous paradoxes of educated, pseudo-academic lives led in the shade of fly-over State U's wholly unfriendly to the growth of ivy. "This is not the Midwest," asserts Barb Weston (Amy Morton, scintillating as the chief sister), as she walks reluctantly through the door of her childhood home. "Michigan is the Midwest, God knows why. This is the Plains: a state of mind, right, some spiritual affliction, like the blues?"
God knows, that's a question that runs to the core of the Steppenwolf aesthetic as Chicago has been led to understand it these past 30 years. And perhaps that's why this remarkable show -- more than any other production at this theater in quite some time -- so powerfully energizes and centers the acting ensemble. Many of Chicago's artists are refugees from points west. Clearly, Letts knew for whom he was writing. And they're more than happy to unleash their demons for him.
Except for briefly inorganic sections of the third act, when revelations pile up too fast and the play's very few false notes emerge, director Shapiro gets complete truth throughout. So when Morton falls in agony on the stairs after her character gets shocking news, it's the kind of personal collapse that's instantly recognizable as the one that terrifies and awaits us all.
The constantly shifting plot is best experienced rather than spoiled in advance summation, but know that "August" is chock-full of such riveting scenes. Sally Murphy, who plays the least confident of the three sisters, was so moving Saturday afternoon, one deeply invested in her character's quest for a perverse piece of happiness. And as the variously inept, or floundering, or morally questionable spouses, lovers and relatives who inhabit Letts' mostly matriarchal universe, Francis Guinan, Ian Barford, Rick Snyder and (especially) Jeff Perry, make a memorable collection of impotent post-colonists with nothing left to conquer.
The main point, of course, is that there's no escape from Osage County. Mariann Mayberry totally nails the third and final Weston sister: a lost soul who first claims personal salvation in Florida (Florida!) with a crummy man. "Everything lives," she cries, when finally forced to face some truths about her family and herself, "somewhere in the middle."
"August: Osage County"
When: Through Aug. 26
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 3 hours, 20 minutes
Tickets: $20-$65, at 312-335-1650