August: Osage County

It's been a long time since we've seen a new play that accomplishes as much as Tracy Letts' impressive epic drawn from his Oklahoma roots. Letts' writing has always been energetic, but the power of the words in August: Osage County has spurred comparisons to Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill. This is no hype. The combination of psychological insight, elegant lyricism, impressive literary allusion, and drop-dead comedic invention make this work one for the ages. Multiple awards are certain to be garnered. (Note: Letts was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama on April 7th and the Tony Award on June 15th.)

The compelling saga, which employs 13 actors and requires a family tree in the program to provide context, began as a perfect vehicle for Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre to showcase their talented artistic stable. Critical acclaim and box office success in the Windy City presaged an equally favorable reception in the Big Apple.

In a stuning opening monologue, Michael McGuire, as Beverly, the patriarch of the Weston family, provides the introductory background for the conflicted world into which we're about to enter—where his references to the poetic heights of T.S. Eliot exist alongside the dependencies and profanity of his contentious clan. Most importantly, he introduces us to his wife, Violet, explaining that "she takes pills ... and I drink." George and Martha meet your rural cousins.

As Violet, Deanna Dunagan gets the honor of creating what will become known as one of the juiciest roles in theatre for women of a certain age. Dying of mouth cancer from her incessant smoking and wicked tongue, Violet is a dragon lady for ages, lashing out at strangers, friends, and family alike. Dunagan sees to it that everyone on stage and in the audience gives mama a wide berth, as her magnetic cruelty holds us rapt, mouths agape, waiting for her secrets to bubble up from the depths of the cauldron.

Beverly's disappearance brings the far-flung members of the menagerie back to the old homestead, a well-appointed, book-filled, three-story house (Todd Rosenthat's impressive cutaway reaches into the flyloft) on a big spread: Beverly and Violet's oldest daughter, Barbara, brings the son-in-law and granddaughter; youngest daughter, Karen, brings the fiance; Violet's sister, Mattie Fae, brings the uncle, Charlie, and the cousin, Little Charles; the only outsiders are the Native American housekeeper, Johnna, and the local sheriff, Deon Gilbeau, an old beau of Barbara's.

Letts weaves a psychologically and emotionally complex tale, with twists and turns at unexpected moments and rare lulls in the action, so the two hundred and five minutes, including two ten-minute intermissions zip by. The mostly original Chicago cast is stellar throughout.

Steppenwolf Theatre's New York premiere of Tracy Letts' August: Osage County closed on June 28, 2009 after 648 performances and 18 previews.

Bob Bows


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