New York City Theater
"August: Osage County"
This is one of those reviews that begins with the cliché, “If you see only one play this year, make it (insert title).” Okay, if you see only one play this year, make it “August: Osage County.” Tracy Lett’s horrifyingly hilarious dissection of a family tearing the hearts out of each other in the very heart of this country is an enthralling work. Its three-and-a-half hour running time seems a lot shorter than many a 90-minute evening.
To label this an epic about a “dysfunctional family” is both accurate and diminishing. Letts goes beyond the bickering, jealousies, secrets, fragmentations and bizarre terrors of quotidian existence to hold those traits as mirrors to the very nature of this land. His Oklahoma family may live on the Plains, but their fates are tied to not only the founding of America but its present predicaments. (“This country, this experiment, America, this hubris. Here today, gone tomorrow,” says one disillusioned character.)
The clan that Letts creates is a sorry lot that elicits both sympathy and distaste. His play begins innocently enough with the hiring of an American Indian woman to help out in a household where the husband drowns his frustrations and the wife is dying. (“My wife takes pills and I drink. That’s the bargain we struck,” he says.)
In typical Noble Savage manner, the Indian (or Native American, as the wife is later warned to say) is the conscience of both family and country. At one point she talks about the traditional wearing of her umbilical cord in a locket around her neck: “If we lose it,” she says, “our souls belong nowhere, and after we die, our souls will walk the Earth looking for where we belong.”
The play’s initiating action occurs when the father disappears and the family gathers under the overwhelming presence of a fierce, angry, mean-spirited, rotting mother. Daughter Ivy is having a clandestine affair with her own cousin; daughter Barbara is trapped in a marriage marred by a philandering husband and their drug-addicted teenager; daughter Karen thinks she’s finally found love but her bloke is a slick operator who causes further havoc. Add a potty-mouth aunt, her milquetoast hubby and a lovelorn sheriff and you have the recipe for clashes galore.
Among other ideas, it’s a play about living in the present. “You can’t plan the future,” says one daughter, “because as soon as you do, something happens, some terrible thing happens.” Or, put more succinctly by another daughter, “Thank God we can’t tell the future. We’d never get out of bed.”
As directed with astonishing grace and power by Anna D. Shapiro, first for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, then for Broadway, “August” is brilliantly acted by performers few know. The richest and longest roles are those of the mother, Violet, and oldest daughter, Barbara. Deanna Dunagan as the former and Amy Morton as the latter sink their fangs into their characters with such ferocity that you won’t even want to meet them at the stage door.
True, there’s enough sturm und drang here for a year’s worth of soap operas. But this is no more “soap opera” than, say, “Hamlet”; besides what TV show references T. S. Eliot and is as hysterically funny as it is genuinely tragic?
Rather, in line with other American family plays about disappearing fathers by O’Neill, Albee and Shepard, “August” looks upon this country with compassion and regret. Is it a great play? Time will tell. Is it a magnificent evening of theater? Yes, definitely.
-- David A. Rosenberg
December 13, 2007