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August: Osage County (review)

From: Theatre Journal
Volume 61, Number 1, March 2009
pp. 105-106 | 10.1353/tj.0.0142

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August: Osage County received near unanimous praise from critics, the kind of word-of-mouth buzz usually reserved for films and musicals, and positive audience response that was frequent and vocal. It is one of only six plays to win the triple crown of American playwriting: the Pulitzer, the Tony, and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. There are at least three reasons for this production’s success: it echoed significant American drama, it explored the myth of the American family, and the performances of the ensemble were remarkable.

Many critics noted that August: Osage County was blatantly derivative, pointing to the father’s suicide (Death of a Salesman), the drug-addicted mother (Long Day’s Journey into Night), cutthroat family politics (Little Foxes), the slash-and-burn arguments of husbands and wives (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), and three sisters who have everything and nothing in common (Crimes of the Heart). In fact, Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design of a multi-storied house recalled Jo Mielziner’s iconic Death of a Salesman set, as if to say that here was going to be another play about a family tearing itself apart. It was a promise well-kept. What all of these plays have in common with August is that they are about family—the conflicts that occur between husbands and wives, between parents and children, among siblings, and the devastation that only family members can visit on one another. It is all there and more—a rollercoaster ride of the familiar that suddenly careens into the unexpected, the hysterical, or the horrifying. August is necessarily derivative because family is the leitmotif of American theatre.

The audience members’ laughs and gasps, which punctuated the actors’ line delivery, were in recognition of their own lives. August: Osage County exploded the myth that so many families try to project to the outside world: the fiction that nothing untoward occurs within the walls of the home. As such, this play is about truth and lies—the lies we tell ourselves, and the lies we tell each other to survive the cruelty of the truth about ourselves and about those we are supposed to love no matter what, our family. Overheard from audience members during the two intermissions were the words “my sister,” “my mother,” and “last Thanksgiving” as connections between the events in the lives of the wildly dysfunctional Weston clan resonated in their own lives. In fact, playwright Tracy Letts has said that his own Oklahoma upbringing and certain family events had been ruminating in his head for years, eventually leading to this play (among them his grandfather’s suicide by drowning, and his grandmother’s spiral into drug addiction). In the course of three surprisingly quick hours that carried the audience on waves of personal catharsis, the production provided familial experiences from the mundane, to the painful, to the humorous, to the insane. There were the overlapping conversations as everyone rushed to the table for that big family meal, the prayer that never seemed to end, and the hysteria that erupted when a main dish went crashing to the floor. There was suicide, pill addiction, alcoholism, illegal drugs, adultery, the predatory male coming on to the teenage girl, and that most secret of family secrets, incest. There was the compulsive need to get rid of personal possessions after the death of a loved one. There were ample examples of the fact that only family members know exactly which buttons to push in order to elicit the most explosive eruptions of emotion. The arc of the production’s action demonstrated the way a home becomes impossibly full and then suddenly, blessedly or terrifyingly, empty. There was something for everyone in that arc.

Finally August: Osage County testified to the power of ensemble theatre. Letts wrote the script with fellow Steppenwolf company members and Chicago actors in mind. He handed the finished script to long-time collaborator, Steppenwolf member Anna Shapiro, to direct. The thirteen-member cast was comprised of seven of the ensemble’s members, and three other actors had been with the cast since its premiere in Chicago. Three of the cast members had been acting together for some...



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