This is James Taylor with KCRW.
August: Osage County is Letts' fourth play after The Man from Nebraska, Killer Joe and Bug. (Letts also wrote the screenplay to the film adaptation of Bug, which starred Ashley Judd.) These three early plays (but especially Killer Joe and Bug) have been widely produced in large part because they offer juicy, even showy, roles for actors.
Letts' instinct for what gets performers excited—as well as his innate sense of what works in intimate theaters—likely stems from his years working as a character actor, both on stage in Chicago (usually with the Steppenwolf company) and in TV and movies. (He may be the only Pulitzer winner to have appeared in both an episode of Seinfeld and a Dolly Parton movie.)
Letts' first two plays were chamber dramas, short pieces that were heavy on atmosphere and character—not to mention violence. They were populated with people on the fringe of society: burnouts and drug addicts who inhabit run-down motels and trailer parks. With August: Osage County, Letts deals with the same elements of fear and disappointment, he simply places them in a much better neighborhood.
At the center of his sprawling domestic drama is the Weston family, once one of the more upstanding homes in suburban Tulsa, Oklahoma. Beverly Weston, the patriarch of the family, used to be a well-known poet in academic circles—by the time the play takes place, in August of 2007, he's simply a drunk professor who quotes Berryman and Elliot in between glasses of whiskey.
Beverly (a role originated by the playwright's father) opens the play with an almost ten-minute-long monologue—and then after the first scene, he disappears. This launches the central drama of the play: the rest of the Weston family returns to Osage County to comfort his wife, Vivian (a superb Deanna Dunagan), while they all wait for his return—and squabble with a repressed American ferocity about who's at fault for Beverly's disappearance.
This waiting and fighting unfolds in three acts that spread out over three-plus hours. In our era of intermission-less, 90-minute plays, this makes August: Osage County an epic.
While many critics have praised Letts' play as a worthy epic, in the tradition of great American three-act plays of decades past (Long Days Journey Into Night and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf are the usual comparisons) August: Osage County has also been attacked as being pretentious, sit-com like, and even provincial.
But most critics, caught up in the virtues and flaws of the play in its current Broadway production, have missed what makes Letts' opus so vital. It's not the length, the over-the-top characters, or so-called seriousness of the play that really matters, but rather that August: Osage County is that rare play that deals with what it means to be an American today. Is the writing better than most new plays? Yes. Does it match the poetry of O'Neill or Albee? Maybe not…but Letts' play about a decaying American family is a work that carefully reflects the state of our union. It unites audiences with a subject everyone understands—an uproariously dysfunctional family—and uses it as a metaphor for 21st century America. Letts quietly suggests that The Weston family and their existential problems are the not the exception; but rather exaggerated representations of too many lost, upper-middle class American families today, whether they live in Osage County, Orange County or anywhere in between.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.
Photos: Joan Marcus