August: Osage County

Now playing at the Music Box Theatre on Broadway.

The centerpiece of August: Osage County is a grandly disastrous family dinner. The matriarch of the Weston family gleefully tears a strip out of everyone in turn, paying particular attention to her three daughters and leaving behind a glut of emotional carnage: reopened wounds, exposed secrets, and shattered psyches. The frequently made comparison to Tennessee Williams’ work isn’t an overstatement. It might be set in Oklahoma rather than the Deep South, but this year’s winner of both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play falls easily into the muggy, tempestuous Southern gothic tradition.

Playwright Tracy Letts doesn’t so much spin a plot as he does stir up a cauldron of volatile elements and then stand back and watch the pyrotechnics: Cancer-ridden pill-addict Violet Weston summons her three adult daughters, her sister, and their families back to the Weston home in rural Oklahoma after her husband, Beverly, goes missing. Virtually everyone is hiding something from someone, and over the course of the unhappy family reunion, virtually all their secrets will be uncovered, revealing just how damaged every one of them is.

This shouldn’t be funny, but Letts’ writing seethes with dark, acrid humor. The monologues are smart and meaty, and though the cast is in transition (the original Steppenwolf Theatre players are beginning to turn over), not one actor seems out of step. Estelle Parsons recently took over the central role of Violet, and she delivers a poisonous whirlwind of a performance, repugnant yet compelling and impossible to dismiss. She is best matched in Amy Morton, who plays eldest daughter Barbara. Together Parsons and Morton turn what might have been mere shouting matches into agile, if brutal, jousts.

I cackled through the three-hour drama along with the rest of the audience (Barbara’s irreverent riposte against the so-called Greatest Generation is especially hilarious), but I left the theater feeling unmoved, and I can’t quite settle on how I feel about that. The play is expertly written, expertly staged, and expertly acted—no doubt—but the family is so dysfunctional, and some of the secrets so incredibly lurid, that wry detachment just might be the only way to get through the Westons’ meltdown.

A few scenes genuinely touched me—chief among them being Violet’s brother-in-law’s quietly impassioned, if belated, defense of his picked-on son (Robert Foxworth’s delivery of the monologue is beautifully heartfelt)—but such moments were rare. I suppose my lack of real engagement might be due to my lack of psychotic parents and ungrateful children, but just how many people can relate to cruelty this extreme and melodramatic?

One line, however, did give me a sudden sense of deja vu. During that cataclysmic family dinner, Violet smugly and repeatedly shouts that she’s “just being honest.” Later I realized that the line and its in-your-face delivery had resonated not because I recall the words from real life but because I recall them from countless “reality” TV shows, on which declaring that you’re “just being honest” or “telling it like it is” or “keeping it real” is practically a requirement. (For the record, I am a firm believer that honesty is not always the best policy, and I tend to distrust a person who imagines herself to be some kind of arbiter of Truth.)

Obviously August: Osage County is light-years past trash like VH1’s Celebreality programming, but it still pulled me up short, that the play reminded me of both Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and America’s Next Top Model. I tried to draw out larger themes—the fact that there is literally an American Indian woman living in the Weston family’s attic seems symbolic of something—and got nowhere.

I now think Tracy Letts’ play is simply (or not so simply) a terribly well-made and well-acted melodrama. That was enough to entertain me, and it’s enough for me to recommend, but in retrospect, I feel a little uneasy about having witnessed so much pain on stage and reacted not with tears but with snickers.