Tracy Letts’ August : Osage County aspires to be the tragicomic saga of Violet Weston (Estelle Parsons) and her upper-middle class family. She lives in Oklahoma, where the rest of her family have gathered to resolve the disappearance of father and husband, Beverly Weston. Sadly, we only see Beverly (Jon DeVries) briefly, in the first scene. He is interviewing Native American Johnna as possible housekeeper and caretaker for Violet. Beverly is an alcoholic poet, affable and philosophical. He quotes John Berryman, Hart Crane and T.S. Eliot, chosen, I suspect for the lines from his poem The Waste Land, “This is the way the world ends, ….Not with a bang, but a whimper.” He explains to Johnna (DeLanna Studi) that he and Violet have had an arrangement for a long time, he stays drunk and she is addicted to pills.
In the next scene Beverly has gone missing for days and the forecast does not seem encouraging. Relatives are moving in, Violet’s sister Mattie Fae, Mattie’s husband Charlie and son, Little Charles, and Violet’s daughters, Karen, Ivy and Barbara the eldest; her husband, Bill, and their teenage daughter, Jean. Barbara and Bill are separated, but keeping this detail to themselves. This topic of withholding crucial information, as well as the bourgeoisie’s inability to cope, once they are no longer struggling, are recurring themes throughout August. There is a theory that much human suffering comes from deprivation of facts. That if you’re hurting, it’s because some vital part of the truth has been kept from you.
As for struggle and purity, well, more than once we hear Johnna say she wants her job in the Weston household, because “she needs the work” And she is unequivocally the best adjusted individual under that roof. Literally. She sleeps in a garret bedroom. Now whether this is because she is working class, Native American or some combination thereof is never made clear. We could reduce this mentality to your grandmother’s adage : “An idle mind is the devil’s playground.” But in fairness to Letts this lengthy, intense, extremely earthy show never pretends to offer remedies. Johnna would appear to be the paradigm for balance and tranquility in this snakepit (entertaining though it sometimes may be). She has not burdened herself with a companion, she carries a charm/token of connectedness to her mother (and the womb) and has the good sense to wield a frying pan when Jean’s future uncle Steve makes a pass at her.
I do think it bears consideration however, that Indian Communities are certainly not immune from substance abuse, suicide, violence, incest, etc, and it seems like August flirts an awful lot with this “noble savage” mythology. Much is made of the Weston history of playing “Cowboys and Indians”, though, this may speak more to living in a constant state of upheaval. Violet explains she has awoken to discover, in the wake of Beverly’s absence, an Indian living in her house.
It’s easy to understand why Violet is the matriarch of the Weston clan, though August ultimately seems to be Barbara’s story. The power rests solely with Violet, or at least, predominantly. Even though Beverly and everyone else is miserable from the lack of it, she refuses air-conditioning, which must be a nightmare to endure in the worst part of summer, in Oklahoma. In a harrowing speech she reveals how her sister, Mattie, barely saved her from a brutal attack. She also describes the early years of Beverly’s existence, grappling with poverty and unable to complete high school. She proudly observes Beverly’s success as a teacher and poet, despite his lack of higher education. This is only the warm up for her harangue, as she dismisses any of her daughters’ suffering as inconsequential, fending off counterattacks by gleefully announcing :
“I’ll eat you alive.”
I wince at the impulse to label a play as a comedy or drama. It’s not that those classifications never apply, but so many shows fall somewhere in-between, and tone often affects our attitude towards content. August is an odd mix with genuinely hilarious moments and devastating eruptions. It’s modulated and takes its time as the plot emerges. Violet is alternately snide, overwhelmed and ferocious. The humor, which ranges from wry to homespun to downright raunchy is certainly welcome, though you have to wonder if you’re simply being distracted before another onslaught. When you compare it to other domestic tragedies like Long Day’s Journey Into Night or The Lion in Winter or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, August : Osage, County doesn’t seem to achieve quite the depth or memorability. It operates on a much larger scale and this may, logistically, be part of the problem.
The Westons are clearly good-hearted, intelligent people who occasionally lose their way. The teenage daughter smokes pot, Karen’s fiancé is lecherous, Barbara’s husband is bedding one of his students, Violet and Beverly deal with their inertia by drowning in controlled substances. Ironically, a great deal of misery is generated by their unwillingness to level with each other. When circumstances have thrown the three sisters into sharing the same bedroom, Ivy (Angelica Torn) writes off their biological connection as an accident of genetics. It’s obvious she’s speaking more from despair than conviction, but with such rampant dysfunction it’s difficult to blame her. There is a lot of insight and humanity in August, a lot of buried tenderness and moxie, but I’m not sure it ever attains the level of poignancy or lyricism of a play that truly takes flight.
It’s always a privilege to watch Estelle Parsons, one of America’s great character actors. She is breathtaking in a role that could have foundered in the wrong hands. We want to like Violet, but Letts isn’t shy about igniting our anger towards her. Even when Violet’s behavior is repugnant, Parsons makes sure we don’t completely lose her. August is pretty much an ensemble piece, with standouts being : Shannon Cochran as Barbara, DeLanna Studi as Johnna, Libby George as Mattie Fae, Emily Kinney as Jean and Jon DeVries as Beverly Weston, the patriarch who disappears far too soon.
This review appeared originally in EDGEdallas.com
AT & T Performing Arts Center (Lexus Broadway Series) Presents : August : Osage County at The Winspear Opera House. Playing January 12-24th, 2010. 2100 Ross Avenue, Suite 650, Dallas, Texas 75201. 214-880-0202. attpac.org