(Los Angeles, CA) September 9, 2009 – Fourteen years ago, Steppenwolf ensemble member and actor Tracy Letts made an impressive debut as a playwright with his trailer-trash thriller, Killer Joe. This dark comedic nail-biter was visceral in its portrayal of the white lower class, including rather violent situations (most notably, the title character forcing a woman to perform fellatio on a fried chicken drumstick, as well as him being nude while pinning Oscar nominee Michael Shannon on the ground with a .45 caliber automatic). However graphically vivid these scenes are, Letts’ sharp dialogue and three-dimensional characters had the uncanny ability to fascinate audiences in Chicago, New York, and London.
Fourteen years and two plays later, Letts has proven to be a true talent in the theatre community. But his previous accomplishments paled in comparison when his latest work, August: Osage County, exploded on Broadway a year ago, resulting in five Tony Awards (including Best Play) and the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. And its West Coast première at the Ahmanson Theatre (starring Oscar Award winner Estelle Parsons) will guarantee an enormous amount of attention and praise. The West Coast transition of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer and Tony award winning play AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY proves to be a spectacular accomplishment, courtesy of Letts' eloquence, flawless direction, and a dynamic cast.
“Life is very long,” growls the family patriarch, Beverly Weston (a wonderfully scene-stealing Jon DeVries) at the very beginning of the show. While hiring a Native American (or is it American Indian? After watching August, I’m still having problems answering that question.) housekeeper/caregiver for his cancer-stricken and drug addicted wife, Violet ( Estelle Parsons), Beverly shares his words of wisdom about marriage, family, T.S. Eliot, literature and, of course, life. Meanwhile, the housekeeper Johnna (a profound Delanna Studi, whose subtle silent wisdom speaks as many volumes as her co-stars) respectfully listens and wonders what she has gotten herself into. After the interview, Beverly leaves his office and disappears into the night, never to be seen again.
And it is this disappearance that draws all branches of the family tree together, most notably “the Weston girls”: the needy Karen (a hilarious Amy Warren), the emotionally fragile Ivy (a tender, heartbreaking Angelica Torn), and the eldest daughter Barbara ( Shannon Cochran). Also thrown into the mix is Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae ( Libby George), whose hostility towards her husband ( Paul Vincent O’Connor) and especially her son ( Stephen Riley Key) hides some family skeletons that almost rival those of Violet’s.
And that is the vital key to August: secrets and their respective revelations. This unstable family reunion serves as an emotional and psychological catalyst for these dark secrets to simmer and finally come to a head, including themes such as incest, pedophilia, drug addictions, and infidelity. But these themes are not gratuitously portrayed, and that is the brilliance behind Letts’ writing. Killer Joe’s success relied on the physical violence; August focuses on the emotional violence that is committed on stage and what had occurred before Beverly’s disappearance.
If a playwright’s words serve as the show’s body, then the actors bring it to life in truly unexpected ways. Leading the pack is Parsons, who fills her Violet with hateful venom and matronly charm. Her relish for tormenting her family can only be matched by her love for her addiction. During the second act dinner scene, she emotionally chews and devours all three daughters and any innocent bystander that stands in her way with such incredible, methodic expertise it is as though she were a lioness who consumes any of her cubs that she finds to be “runt-ish.” However, Parsons masterfully laces Violet’s poisonous behavior with loss and regret concerning Beverly, her abusive past, and the slow disintegration of her family. From the roots of her volatile behavior, buds of pathos and pity patiently sprout into bloom, adding more layers to her character.
Equally powerful is
Cochran’s Barbara, who has problems of her own dealing with her crumbling marriage to Bill (
Jeff Still) and controlling her teenage daughter, Jean (a delightfully innocent
Emily Kinney). A picture of wound-up tension and diminishing hope, Cochran expertly shows a woman trying to multitask all the problems her family faces: Violet’s cruelty, Bill’s infidelity, Jean’s rebellion, and especially the emotional demons that plague her sisters. When Barbara takes control of the household by performing a drug isolation and intervention on Violet,
Cochran explodes on the stage with triumphant, comedic anger, which soon turns even darker as she realizes that she might be following the same emotional path as her mother.
The rest of the supporting players shine in their own glory, and Letts seems to group them in terms of their emotional polarity. On the positive end of the “magnetic” spectrum, besides Studi’s Johnna, is O’Connor’s Charlie, who is such a pleasant breath of fresh air as he tries to alleviate several moments of tension with his good natured wit and sense of humor, and he really dominates towards the end of the play as he stands up to his wife for her cold treatment of their son. Key’s Little Charlie is a picture of delicate naïveté and charm, especially when he plays the piano and sings a poignant song of his own creation to his cousin, Ivy. Marcus Nelson (who was cast as one of the original featured actors in Killer Joe) gives a touching performance as the town sheriff who catches Barbara’s eye.
But towards the negative end are three characters who seem to enhance the toxic presence of the household: George’s Mattie Fae is almost as cruel and cold as her sister; Still’s Fordham perfectly symbolizes pompous, ego-centric, womanizing academia; and Laurence Lau is frighteningly effective as Karen’s fiancé whose predatory appetite towards 14 year old Jean is undoubtedly the most disturbing facet of this play.
However, one major character that must be given recognition is the Weston House, wonderfully designed by
Todd Rosenthal. Throughout the progress of the show and the meticulous blocking by director
Anna Shapiro, the three level set almost symbolizes the three stages of human existence: the ground level of the living/dining room (where most of the action takes place) serves as the characters’ “living state” or “personal hell,” depending on who is involved; the second level hallway landing acts as a form of purgatory; and the attic (Johnna’s bedroom) becomes a tiny little heaven for the wounded souls to heal after experiencing any trauma that occurs downstairs.
Tracy Letts is the true star of the story. His evolution as a playwright is phenomenal in terms of his character psychology and the framework of his intricate storytelling. It is truly an amalgam of the eloquence of
Williams, the complexity of
O’Neil, the absurdity of
Shepard, and the abrasiveness of
Mamet. His narrative voice is truly potent and will continue to transform American theatre as time goes on.
August: Osage County opened September 8 (Tuesday night) and runs to October 18 (Sunday night)
Center Theatre Group/ Ahmanson Theatre
At the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A.
Tickets are available by calling Center Theatre Group Audience Services at (213) 972-4400, in person at the Center Theatre Group box office or on-line at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. Groups: (213) 972-7231.
Deaf community: Information & charge, TDD (213) 680-4017.
Photos by: Robert J. Saferstein and Joan Marcus