August: Osage County
Every time I think life is really the shits, along comes an artistic event that keeps me breathing just a little bit longer. It’s no wonder that Tracy Letts, promising creator of Man from Nebraska, Killer Joe and Bug, was honored with the Tony Award for Best Play and the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his incredible worldclass contribution to modern theatre history called August: Osage County.
After its initial smash debut at Chicago’s Steppenwolf in 2007 and a heralded recently-ended two-year run in New York, August: Osage County has finally made its local debut here at the Ahmanson—and there’s no doubt in my mind that this play will go on to become one of the most enduring and celebrated American classic plays of the decade, if not the century, if our planet lasts long enough to so recognize its wonder.
Mark my word, future chroniclers of the greatest literature of our time, 50 years from now, if there is a 50 years from now, Letts and August: Osage County will be studied and revered right alongside O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, Hellman’s The Little Foxes, Williams’ Glass Menagerie and Streetcar, Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Goat, Mamet’s American Buffalo, and Kushner’s Angels in America.
Discovering the mark of greatness in any work of art has always been, to me, trying to divine how the work will hold up in time. With August: Osage County Letts has, with jarring insight, a frightening air of hopelessness, and an unexpected biting sense of humor, chronicled the demise of the American family and the death of the American dream. As one of Letts’ tragically put-upon characters observes in this, his most remarkable masterpiece to date, “Thank God we can’t tell the future. We’d never get out of bed.”
August: Osage County follows the Weston clan of rural Pawhuska, Oklahoma, located some 60 miles northwest of Tulsa, where the rambling family home—magically conceived here in the Tony-winning set design by Todd Rosenthal as a huge multi-level grown-up doll house—exposes several dysfunctional generations of a once-proud family that quickly shows itself to be a frightening microcosm of us all as we crash headfirst into the second decade of yet another mess of a millennium.
Theatrical treasure Estelle Parsons stars here as Violet, the Mary Tyrone of the Weston brood, yet another drug addicted survivor (whose excessive pill-popping “eliminates the need for equilibrium”) of yet another fucked-up heartland childhood. The usually super-stoned Violet is an abrasive, mean-spirited, miserable matron who spends most of the play’s three-and-a-half hour descent into a modern miasma of misery trying to cope with the suicide of her alcoholic poet-professor husband Beverly (Jon DeVries) who, before he drowns himself in the local pond, spends the play’s first scene explaining to a potential housekeeper (DeLanna Studi) why the household needs her assistance, including the fact that Violet is usually barely comprehensible and that washing his own undies gets in the way of his drinking.
Beverly’s timely untimely death brings together the couple’s three happily scattered daughters (Shannon Cochran, Angelica Torn and Amy Warren); their various estranged husbands, pedophilic suitors and incestuous cousins (Jeff Still, Laurence Lau and Stephen Riley Key); as well as a hopelessly future-challenged teenaged daughter (Emily Kinney); and Violet’s blustery, strident sister and her own long-suffering spouse (Libby George and Paul Vincent O’Connor).
Under the truly inspired Tony-winning direction of Steppenwolf’s Anna D. Shapiro, Parsons, at age 82, gives perhaps the most indelible, most jaw-dropping performance of her long and distinguished career, ably assisted by a cast that could simply define what courageously heroic acting is all about. What a true joy and honor it must be for actors to have the opportunity to say these words and have each other around to bounce speeches off of and collectively create such a phenomenal presentation. This is the finest ensemble cast to hit our parched desert climes in many a moon.
Ann G. Wrightson’s glorious lighting, which in one scene actually successfully indicates a long passage of time, Richard Woodbury’s sound design, and the haunting original score by David Singer also contribute immensely to the glory of this production, but let’s face it: without Letts’ dazzlingly poetic command of the English language and his nearly Herculean, undeniably ineffaceable understanding of the human condition as we all flounder and sputter in the tragic deaththrows of this, the advent of our 21st century, no one would have been so spectacularly inspired to create such theatrical magnificence.
Although it’s often his old pal Lord Byron who’s quoted as saying that poets are the “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” it was actually Shelley in his 1821 essay A Defence of Poetry who made that point.
“Poets, or those who imagine and express the indestructible order,” wrote Shelley, “are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting: they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers, who draw into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and the true that partial apprehension of the agencies of the invisible world which is called religion. Hence all original religions are allegorical, or susceptible of allegory, and, like Janus, have a double face of false and true.
“Poets, according to the circumstances of the age and nation in which they appeared, were called, in the earlier epochs of the world, legislators, or prophets: a poet essentially comprises and unites both these characters. For he not only beholds intensely the present as it is, and discovers those laws according to which present things ought to be ordered, but he beholds the future in the present, and his thoughts are the germs of the flower and the fruit of latest time.”
Tracy Letts, in his brilliant contribution to the great theatrical literature of our time called August: Osage County, chronicles with humor and heartache and tears our own sorted era in the history of the human race. “You know,” Beverly Weston observes before he chooses to quietly disappear into the briny deep, “this country has always been a whorehouse, but at least it had some promise. Now, it’s just a shithole.
“What a lament it would be,” Letts’ observer observes, “if no one saw it go.” That’s what artistic geniuses such as Tracy Letts give us—and that’s what reaffirms what we’re all here to observe and mourn right along with him.
August: Osage County plays through Oct. 18 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Av. in the LA Music Center; for tickets, call 213.972.4400 or book online at www.centertheatregroup.org.