Thursday, March 27, 2008

"August: Osage County," or, This Madhouse is My Home

The ensemble shares a disastrous dinner. Photo from

A week ago at this time, I had just seen a performance of August: Osage County on Broadway. I'd anticipated August since August, and was not disappointed--indeed, I'm inspired.

First, it's refreshing to see a play with a 13-actor ensemble cast, dominated by female characters. There are 7 female and 6 male actors, and two of the men don't have much stage time. Special commendations to Deanna Dunagan as matriarch Violet Weston and Amy Morton as eldest daughter Barbara. Dunagan, skinny and tightly wound, popping pills and delivering lacerating insults, looks as though the sheer force of her bitterness has shriveled her up. Or maybe it's her character's oral cancer. (After seeing August, I laughed at the NYC bus ads urging mouth-cancer prevention. Wouldn't it be great if they used a photo of Dunagan in full harridan mode, and the slogan "Don't Be Like Violet Weston...Get Checked for Mouth Cancer Today"?) And everything about Morton's performance is perfectly calibrated, down to the way her Okie accent flickers in and out.

The strongest of the three daughters, Barbara makes a worthy antagonist for Violet. The other siblings are downtrodden middle daughter Ivy (Sally Murphy, playing against her ingenue looks) and amusingly self-absorbed youngest daughter Karen (Mariann Mayberry). Barbara is the only one with a child of her own: 14-year-old Jean (Madeleine Martin), who tries to act like an adult, but her nasal childlike voice betrays her. Aunt Mattie Fae (Rondi Reed), vulgar and overbearing, is the picture of the barely-tolerated relative. And Johnna (Kimberly Guerrero), the young Cheyenne Indian housekeeper, empathetically observes everything from high in the attic.

Next to these formidable women, the men--all of whom are weak and flawed, and lacking the females' gumption--don't stand much of a chance. Mattie Fae's husband Charlie (Francis Guinan) and son Little Charles (Ian Barford) chafe under her belittling attitude. The genial Charlie is one of the more likable characters, however, especially when he stands up to his wife. Barbara's husband Bill (Jeff Perry) and Karen's fiancé Steve (Brian Kerwin) are in the midst of midlife crises. Beverly Weston (Michael McGuire), the patriarch whose disappearance sets the plot in motion, is a dissipated Southern-gentleman poet. Last, there is the sheriff (Troy West) who functions as something akin to the messenger in a Greek tragedy.

Not only does the cast size seem like something from a bygone era (in a good way!), the structure and staging are also old-fashioned. Three acts, with relatively few scenes per act--this is not one of those cinema-influenced plays that switches to a new location every three pages. In fact, when scenes start to change more frequently during the third act, the play's rhythm feels a little erratic. And everything takes place on a three-level set full of props and furniture. Tracy Letts spends several paragraphs describing the set at the beginning of the published script--I thought playwrights had stopped doing that!

It's funny that, for a young playwright like me, the old-fashioned dramatic construction of August: Osage County can seem revelatory. But no playwriting book, no writing teacher, no artistic director, these days, is going to teach you how to write a three-act kitchen-sink I find it inspiring that Tracy Letts figured out how to write one on his own, probably from studying the great playwrights of the past. And yes, August: Osage County is a melodrama--but it's extraordinarily effective. How nice to laugh and gasp along with the rest of the audience--and not just once or twice, but throughout!

But don't get me wrong: even though August: Osage County has been compared to Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams, that doesn't give you a proper idea of its tone. Neither O'Neill nor Williams are funny writers--the former is grandiose and self-serious, the latter an earnest poet. The tone, if not the subject matter, of August: Osage County instead is more like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf: mordantly funny but deeply harrowing. At the end of Act One, Barbara says to Jean, "Thank God we can't tell the future, or we'd never get out of bed. Listen to me: die after me, all right? I don't care what else you do, where you go, how you screw up your life, just...survive. Outlive me, please." A bleak sentiment, though Morton's delivery of the line makes you chuckle...and the characters still have two acts to go, two acts further to fall.

Act Two is the centerpiece, the high point...just terrific writing. It's all one scene, taking up 40 pages in the published script, and ending with 11 of the 13 actors onstage eating dinner (see what I mean about old-fashioned construction?). It begins with Violet popping pills, so she's like a ticking time bomb, waiting for them to take effect. And boy howdy (as my Okie friends would say), they do. By the end of the act, Violet is attacking each of her family members where it hurts the most--my God, I love "disastrous dinner party" scenes, and this one is an instant classic.

The third act begins more calmly, with the three sisters chatting--another lovely choice, since they have not had a scene to themselves before this. I bet this selection will become popular in acting classes, which always need great female-only scenes.

Everybody is going to take something different from August: Osage County, and for me, it was the commentary on women and aging. The three sisters are all in their 40s and feeling the effects of the end of youth. The men, in subtle and overt ways, suggest that they'd rather be with younger women. Violet encourages Ivy to make more of her looks, while constantly telling her that women get less sexy as they age. The play seems to ask "If society values women only when they're young and beautiful, what options do older women have?" Perhaps this helps explain the Weston women's frustration and dysfunction.

So, to answer my own question from last August: yes, this play does say something, and Letts' characters are more than the sum of their secrets and faults. Though not clever in a smart-aleck way, the play is subtly crafty--I realized the brilliance of the T.S. Eliot references as I left the theater. If you've seen the play and are hungry to read discussion on it, I recommend the New York Times' "Reading Room" blog, which did a series of posts on this "modern classic," with the input of Frank Rich and Marsha Norman, among others. A big new American family drama, intelligently discussed by so many eager people--why did we think that this was a thing of the past? And how can we make it happen more often?


Mead said...

What a terrific commentary; you may me feel like I was there. I haven't the pleasure of seeing the production yet, but let me tell you, I haven't been this excited by a script in some time. If Letts doesn't get the Putlizer for it, there is no god!

Marissa said...

Thanks, Mead. I think what I am most excited about with "August: Osage County" is seeing what effect it has playwrights of MY generation--my barely-nascent generation, those of us who are still in school. It might teach us to think big after years of thinking small! And that suits me.

Dr.J said...

Dear Marissa: although I haven´t commented recently I always follow you. This week August will be performed in Madrid at the "Centro Dramático Nacional" the kind of national theater in Spain. It is not a set company but a director who chooses the plays and assembles the actors ad hoc. Funnily most of the actresses are well known for succesful TV series running now in Spain. I thought Tracy was a girl!

Well I´d like you to recollect your impresions about theater three years ago when you wrote this and compare to your current thoughts (now you are a well established genius of the west-coast scene, or so I am told). Maybe Christmas is a good time for that exercise, because for your reader there is a distinct trend in your posts towards the "professional" vs the "amateur" in these years and I guess that is what you were looking for. Early Christmas greetings anyway if we don´t meet in the blog till them.

Marissa Skudlarek said...

It's funny that in Spain it is unusual for a theater to "assemble the actors ad hoc." That's how most plays are produced in the United States! Very few theaters have set ensemble/repertory companies of actors anymore. One exception is Steppenwolf Theater, the Chicago-based company that originally produced "August: Osage County."

It was a bit strange to go back and reread this post. I haven't thought a lot about "August: Osage County" in the last 3 years -- I guess I have had other theater experiences that affected me more profoundly. I certainly enjoyed "August: Osage County" and I'd probably still think that it was well-written, but for some reason, I just don't find myself thinking about it very much.

And as far as I can tell there haven't been a lot of plays influenced by "August Osage County" to come out in the last three years... it's sui generis rather than part of a trend.