"Ensemble" is the word most frequently used in connection with Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County." The play, after all, was written for the ensemble of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and the production was hailed for the believability of the family bonds among the characters. So the fact that only five of the current cast members in the New York production of the show were in the play during its Chicago run causes some worry. Can the new actors bond artistically with the original ones? It is a pleasure to report that the new cast members fit in seamlessly, and the production still makes for an extraordinary evening of theater.
After its premiere at Steppenwolf in the summer of 2007, the play moved to Broadway's Imperial Theatre, where it weathered the stagehands' strike to open to raves. The production then managed something rare for straight plays; it connected with a wide audience. People who didn't often go to see non-musicals were attending, enjoying it, and telling their friends. The initial limited run was extended several times, then moved to an open run at the smaller Music Box when the production needed to vacate the Imperial to make way for "Billy Elliott." Along the way it picked up a raft of awards, including the Pulitzer and five Tonys, for Best Play, Anna D. Shapiro's direction, Deanna Dunagan and Rondi Reed's performances, and Todd Rosenthal's set (and now, a movie version is in the works).
The play centers on the Weston family, living in a large house outside of Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Beverly, the father (Michael Maguire, in a part played by Dennis Letts, the playwright's father, until his death from lung cancer this February) disappears after the first scene, and the entire family returns home to deal with the crisis. Considering that the house is now occupied only by the family matriarch, Violet, an abusive pill addict (Oscar-winner Estelle Parsons), fireworks are sure to follow. The play is a steadily escalating series of confrontations and revelations, with at least half a dozen genuinely gasp-worthy moments.
Some have accused the play of being simply a soap opera, and there is an element of the potboiler to it, in Letts' shameless use of plot twists that sometimes strain believability. But, crucially, the script goes much deeper. If the first act, setting up the characters, is fascinating, and the second, culminating in a jaw-dropping dinner scene, is riveting, the third, showing the aftermath, is simply heartbreaking. A soap opera would never give us the richly realistic characters, the tiny details of personality, or the sorrowful understanding of the consequences of hurtful actions that this play does.
I should explain that I do not have the background to compare this cast to the orgininal. I was out of the country during the play's Steppenwolf run, and my tickets to the Broadway production last Thanksgiving weekend were refunded due to the stagehand strike. However, I can say that this cast genuinely feels like a family with a long, tortured history. The fact that two of the new cast members are also ensemble members at Steppenwolf probably helps. However, I believe the greatest credit goes to Letts' beautifully written characters and Shapiro's extraordinary direction. (Full disclosure: Shapiro is a professor at Northwestern, and I took a workshop from her when I was a student there.) The production pays attention both to the complex and fast-moving plot and to tiny, telling details. My personal favorite image is of Karen, the youngest Weston daughter (Mariann Mayberry), engaged in a tense conversation and compulsively putting olives onto her fingers and eating them off. It's a minor tic, but it tells so much about her character.
The cast is superb all around; there isn't a weak link. Each gets a chance to shine and has a deep commitment to his or her character. However, highest honors must be given to Parsons, who frighteningly illuminates both Violet's terrifying abusiveness and her pitiable state while high on pills, and Amy Morton, as the eldest daughter, Barbara, trying desperately to understand and control her world as it falls apart. The designers also do superb work at telling the story of the play. Rosenthal's Tony-winning set, towering and skeletal, is the perfect arena for the family's battles. Ana Kuzmanic's costumes always tell us about the characters; Violet's outfit of blue silk pajamas and blue high heels, worn whenever she is stoned, is particularly apt. And Ann G. Wrightson's lighting succeeds both in creating gorgeous pictures and in helping to shape the story.
Some have complained that the play does not live up to the comparisons with Eugene O'Neill that it has received from some. However, such comparisons are meaningless. Letts isn't O'Neill, and shouldn't be. Whether "August: Osage County" will be considered a classic in 50 years is immaterial. It is an extraordinary play now.