August: Osage County by Tracy Letts

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A Scene from August Osage County

A Scene from August Osage County

August: Osage County
by Tracy Letts
Steppenwolf at the Music Box Theater, New York
directed by Anna D. Shapiro

Ian Barford – Little Charles
Deanna Dunagan – Violet Weston (Oct 30, 2007-Jun 15, 2008)
Kimberly Guerrero – Johnna Monevata
Francis Guinan – Charlie Aiken (Oct 30, 2007-Jun 15, 2008)
Brian Kerwin – Steve Heidebrecht
Michael McGuire – Beverly Weston
Madeleine Martin – Jean Fordham
Mariann Mayberry – Karen Weston
Amy Morton – Barbara Fordham
Sally Murphy – Ivy Weston
Jeff Perry – Bill Fordham
Rondi Reed – Mattie Fae Aiken (Oct 30, 2007-Jun 15, 2008)
Troy West – Sheriff Deon Gilbeau

As I mulled over the play I had just seen, the much-acclaimed August: Osage County, over some bad, overpriced feijoada, I found myself probing around for just what had been lacking in the evening. I left the Music Box Theater thinking that it was perhaps not that strong a play. I liked its length (or perhaps out on the Plains people would conceive it as breadth) and its rambling quality. Most of its dozen characters were unattractive in one way or another, but I’d grown fond of them over the past three hours. On the other hand, I perhaps felt mildly frustrated that I didn’t know more about the characters, that too much was left open. (I won’t retell the story here. If you can’t quite follow the following streamof dysfunctional relatives, you should see the play or read it. You won’t regret it.) I found myself wondering what brought Bev together with Violet in the the first place. There must have been something, before the pills and the alcohol took over. Then it takes more than Mattie Fae’s word to convince me about what brought her together with Bev, presumably his frustration with Violet. Is the result of this adultery with his sister-in-law really enough to put the man into such a depression that he kills himself years later? On the other hand, it’s more than enough that he has come to the realization that “life is very long,” and the “the world is gradually becoming a place where I do not care to be anymore.” Bev is—or was—a poet, but his years of inactivity had been so long that it’s hard to imagine that it still bothered him. All he had to do was to stay drunk. Now Barbara, his daughter, followed in Beverly’s footsteps and became an academic. She and her husband left home for Colorado—a tragic abandonment of her parents in the eyes of some, because they could both find jobs there, but we never find out what her academic interests were, what her work life was like. As least we know that it didn’t offer her the same sexual temptations it proferred her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Bill. Weren’t these trivial questions? Perhaps, but I believe that fact that they kept appearing suggested that something was thin in the background to let them through.

The problem is that Tracy Letts allows us only to see a limited part of his characters in the play. However, they are more than cut-outs, a good deal more. There is a lot the audience can fill in with the imagination; but on stage their functionality is limited to their roles within the family, and in the playwright’s inclusive perspective they become dwarfed. From his introductory quotation from Robert Penn Warren, we know that Tracy Letts takes a dim view of family life. (“The child comes home and the parent puts the hooks in him…And the good old family reunion…is very much like diving into the octopus tank at the aquarium.”) Like any American play that takes on the time-honored American subjects of marriage and the family, there will be vague reminiscences, if not allusions to Long Day’s Journey into Night, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but the effect of August: Osage County is quite different. The audience’s perspective on the characters is more distant. The sheer number of somewhat filled-out characters, the level of activity, their moral ambiguity (There is no one you really love and no one you really hate, although Steve is pretty revolting, and I did like Charlie…and Violet quite a lot…at least she had some spirit.), living as they do “where everything lives: somewhere in the middle,” as Karen says, confronting Barbara, “Where everything lives, where all the rest of us live, everyone but you.

August: Osage County sports the classic devices of tragedy: suicide, compulsive behavior, concealed consanguinity and the resulting incest, and more, but it is full of laughs, black humor which distances us from the tragic side of things, which are deliberately understated (or underdeveloped), just as O’Neill’s borrowings from classical tragedy are clumsy and overblown. I love to laugh, but I found myself less susceptible to Letts’ brand of humour than much of the audience. Far too much of it came from caustic one-liners, sit-com humor, really, and the wit behind them is generally crude: the foul-mouthed Barbara can be depended on to tickle us with the incongruity of an educated middle-class woman who swears like a truck-driver. Surely the daughter of a renowed alcoholic poet can come up with something better than “fuck” and “shit.” (I’m not prudish about language or anything else, but bawdiness is an art, and this kind of free-flowing, mindless toilet-talk has become the undoing of stage and screen.) Of course Barbara is angry: Bill is leaving her for Cindy, one of his undergraduate students, and she has her mother to contend with. As she settles into her father’s favorite leisure activity, whisky, Barbara wants to be the strong one in the family, the woman who “runs things,” but she is no match for her mother…until she turns her back on her and leaves. The struggle of succeeding generations of matriarchs would have to be a fight to the death, otherwise.

Now if I’ve commented on the monotony of the banal one-liners, you can imagine that most, if not all, of the dialogue is built of the short, flat sentences of hardy plainsmen. (From the play I learned that they don’t want to be considered midwesterners any more than the people of Ohio’s Western Reserve.) Letts’ building blocks are the nickels, dimes, and cents of the American language: “Violet: But your father. You broke his heart when you moved away. —Barbara: That is wildly unfair. —Bill: Am I going to have to separate you two?” “Then real life takes over because it always does_” “You’re about a sexy as a wet cardboard box, Mattie Fae…” And so on. I haven’t picked out these phrases to be unfair. Letts doesn’t so much weave as snap them together into an intriguing if not engrossing, an amusing if not hilarious black comedy—more a well-peppered steak than a profoundly life-enhancing barbecue.

As I began to prepare this review I had a copy of the play at hand for reference, but once I had it open, I began to read…and to read on. I found I connected with August: Osage County more easily on the page. The staccato rhythms of those homely sentences really came to life in my mind. I can easily imagine it as a very effective radio play—in three episodes. Should I be blaming the highly acclaimed cast and director from the renowned Steppenwolf company? Well, yes. Steppenwolf has a reputation as a strong ensemble company, but that was not entirely borne out in this production. There were no truly weak players, but some performances were more compelling than others, and two stood out as truly memorable star turns—Rondi Reed as Mattie Fae and Deanna Dunagan as Violet. Their presence, imagination, and the nuanced color of their language were worthy of the greats, and they were justly awarded Tonies for their work. Amy Morton couldn’t quite rise to this level, partly because her character the menopausal middle-class woman with parental dilemmas being ditched by husband for an absurdly young rival. We’ve seen so many commendable actresses tackle that type. Some of the ensemble scenes with rushing action and overlapping lines seemed a little clumsy and obvious, as if the routines needed a tune-up. I did see it several months into the run, after all.

However, the use of amplification and chest mics presented more of a problem than human shortcomings. This is all too common on Broadway, and no well-trained professional should have to resort to this expedient. One loses the sense of acoustic space that belongs to the stage, and subtle nuances of timing and inflection are lost, because the actors don’t hear each other directly. Speech and exchange are flattened out into a homogeneous electronic screen which floats somewhere around the loudspeakers in front of the proscenium. Also the range of color and inflection available to a good actor projecting his own voice from the stage goes far beyond the kind of everyday speech produced for microphones. I was disappointed that this highly skilled company compromised its standards in that way.

There are further problems. Letts purposely defused the tragic aspects of his story and heightened the black comedy—crudely, as I said. However, if he sought to avoid the literary pretension of an O’Neill, an Anderson, or a Williams, he does see fit to call in Tom Eliot to say a few words at the beginning. Drunken, dispairing Bev quotes Eliot to Johnna, the Indian girl he is hiring as a housekeeper, and he lends her a volume of Eliot to clinch the deal. “Life is very long…” he quotes, explaining, “he’s given credit for it because he bothered to write it down. He’s not the first person to say it…certainly not the first person to think it. Feel it. But he wrote the words on a sheet of paper and signed it and the four-eyed prick was a genius…so if you say it, you have to say his name after it.”

Poor Tom’s a-cold once again. This may be a plausible way for a has-been poet to express his world-weariness, but Bev goes on to express disapproval of Eliot’s faith and his relations with his insane wife, Vivian: “I admire the hell out of Eliot the poet, but the person? I can’t identify.” It is quite implausible, on the other hand, for Beverly, a poet of an older generation with a tenuous connection to academic fashions, and whose mental activities began to taper off in the 1960’s, to be handing down the politically-correct platitudes of the 1990’s to a young woman of mainly practical education, whom he is about to hire as a housekeeper. At that point Violet makes herself heard: “…son-of-a-bitch…” and we learn that he’s done no better by his wife. Violet is the most aware of the lot, but institutionalization lurks in the background. Booze, pills, and the fortitudinous boasts of American matriarchy prove no more efficacious than the High Church.

But of course he is passing on a legacy which only Johnna is able to take on. The play concludes with the girl, Johnna, reciting “This is the way the world ends” etc. over the abandoned Violet’s lament.

While I clearly think that August: Osage County and Steppenwolf’s production on Broadway have been overrated, I still think it’s a good play and the company is a fine one, and Deanna Dunagan and Rondi Reed, who left the production one June 15 after collecting their Tonies, were exceptional. There is no reason not to see the play, if you can afford it, and you may fall for the cheap jokes more readily than I did. The uncritical enthusiasm for the play, which also won a Tony, can only show that, as far as theater of any substance is concerned, New York audiences must have been on a murderously lean diet.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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