August: Osage County will probably sweep the Tonys this year, and will probably cement Steppenwolf’s outstanding reputation on the American stage. Fresh from Chicago, this new play brings family drama and realism back to Broadway, as well as an impeccable cast that — get this — boasts no stars and virtually no New Yorkers. However, there’s good news and bad news.
What starts out as a raw and deeply personal tragicomedy from author Tracy Letts, one that wrestles with a psychologically doomed Oklahoma family on the brink of a total breakdown, ends up too much like a dark sitcom. Every pained exchange ends in a punch line, and the whole thing plays as if Tennessee Williams were writing for Reba.
Where the production excels is in its teasing out the chaotic, ritualistic torture of family gatherings — all the things a grown child assumes will go wrong before stepping through his parents’ door do, and the self-fulfilling nature of his prophecy heaps pain after pain upon him. Letts beautifully captures the little things that spark the fire: the ridiculous temperature in the parents’ house, the close quarters, the public reprimands, the idle chatter that seems to go on for days.
The play’s greatest invention is Violet Weston, the family matriarch, a character sure to be inked into the pages of Broadway history. Addicted to painkillers, Violet pops downers so ferociously that she hurtles past the slightly dopey stage and goes straight to la-la land. Her tongue barely reaches her teeth when she speaks. She hallucinates. She staggers like a zombie. When sober, she is blunt, vicious and vengeful. Deanna Dunagan has accomplished something astonishing in this role, making Violet as sympathetic as she is terrifying. Where the actress began with this Mount Everest of a character, only her closest collaborators must know; where she is now is heart-rending perfection.
Now back to the bad news. I don’t easily bring up the Williams comparison again, but Letts brings the parallels upon himself by making numerous Tennessean references in this rural kitchen-sink epic (even giving the clumsy pseudo-poet of a son a job at a shoe store). I have no problem with these homages, but Letts’s abundance of snappy lines just doesn’t serve the realism that is Williams’s legacy. It’s a legacy that Letts clearly, and nobly, reaches for, but a play that’s three-and-a-half hours long and contains two intermissions ought to deliver on that promise.
“You’d have a lot more credibility if you had any credibility.” “Eat the fish, bitch!” “She takes pills and I drink.” “I’m running things now!!!” (Lights out. Act break.) Letts finds his dramatic meter in having characters state the obvious, or admit what others would probably hide. The whole Weston family practices this flat honesty throughout. In life, yes, this candor can be hereditary. But in a play, when every line is an admission of truth, quickly formed and tersely stated, it turns into an overused device. The characters are too witty for the state of emergency they are dealing with. The laugh lines only undercut the work’s power.
T-shirts on sale in the lobby bear one of Violet Weston’s pill-addled aphorisms: “All women should wear makeup!” I realize American theater culture has changed a great deal in the last 50 years, but can you imagine what Tennessee Williams would have done if they tried to stick a line from Glass Menagerie on a souvenir? He might have hauled off and hit someone. How I wish this production were served with the same earnestness. It deserves it. And its willingness to trifle with slogans, both on T-shirts and on stage, keeps it just out of the reach of lasting drama.