In Tracy Letts’ ferociously entertaining “August: Osage County,” the American dysfunctional family drama comes roaring into the 21st century with eyes blazing, nostrils flaring and fangs bared, laced with corrosive humor so darkly delicious and ghastly that you’re squirming in your seat even as you’re doubled over laughing. Rushed to Broadway with most of its original cast intact after bowing to huge acclaim this summer at Chicago’s Steppenwolf, this massive meditation on the cruel realities that often belie standard expectations of conjugal and family accord — not to mention on the decline of American integrity itself — confirms that, for once, the hype is justified.
Simply attempting a three-act, three-hour-plus ensemble piece with a dozen fully developed characters in this era of economical, small-cast productions and 90-minute one-acts suggests uncommon ambition. Doing so while invoking comparison with the work of America’s greatest dramatists — Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” are obvious inspirations, but there are echoes also of Sam Shepard, Tennessee Williams and a dyspeptic Horton Foote — might seem to be pushing hubris too far.
But despite being known for the gory thrills and paranoiac chills of punchy little plays like “Killer Joe” and “Bug,” Letts has pulled off this bold undertaking with structural panache, propulsive dramatic momentum and acid-drenched wit that never lets up.
“Life is very long,” says alcoholic poet Beverly Weston (the playwright’s father, Dennis Letts) in the prologue, quoting T.S. Eliot. Sucking back Jim Beam while interviewing a Cheyenne woman named Johnna (Kimberly Guerrero) for housekeeper, Beverly moves on from Eliot to quote John Berryman: “The world is gradually becoming a place where I do not care to be anymore.”
The literary references serve both to locate Beverly among all the once-celebrated writers turned embittered, small-town academics, and also to illuminate the state of mind that necessitates putting his house in order. “The facts are: My wife takes pills and I drink,” he explains. “And these facts have over time made burdensome the maintenance of traditional American routine.”
When Beverly disappears soon after without explanation, his painkiller-addicted wife, Violet (Deanna Dunagan), sends out distress signals that bring the Westons’ extended family back home to the Oklahoma plains. The three-story house is rendered in superb detail by designer Todd Rosenthal, with a naturalistic living/dining/office space spread out downstage and an American Gothic doll’s house cutaway looming behind.
Violet has mouth cancer (described by Beverly as “the punch line”), but it’s her words that are truly malignant. Having endured a childhood of emotional and physical abuse, she thinks nothing of doling out her own punishments. There’s not a family crisis or bombshell revelation — whether it’s death, adultery, pedophilia or incest — that can persuade her to soften her verbal blows for long.
Principal targets of Violet’s tough-love venom are her three daughters. Menopausal Barbara (Amy Morton) is fading from hot flashes while trying to keep it quiet that husband Bill (Jeff Perry) has left her for one of his students and their 14-year-old daughter Jean (Madeleine Martin) has a weed habit. Ivy (Sally Murphy) has a history of falling for losers and a reason for remaining secretive about her new love. Karen (Mariann Mayberry) has a similar string of failed relationships behind her but is convinced she’s found stability with supposed dream guy Steve (Brian Kerwin).
While she’s more insensitive than mean, blowsy Mattie Fae (Rondi Reed) is no less vicious than older sister Violet. Her easygoing husband Charlie (Francis Guinan) generally lets it slide; her most withering put-downs are reserved for their no-account son, Little Charles (Ian Barford).
Given that U.S. repertory acting companies have become largely a thing of the past, there are few places a work of these dimensions might have been so successfully nurtured as Steppenwolf, where artistic associate Letts has been an ensemble member since 2002, working as both actor and playwright. Director Anna D. Shapiro skillfully draws on the deep-grooved associations of a tight-knit company to add texture and collective history to the large gallery of characters.
Letts has a well-tuned ear for barbed zingers. But while the play’s three acts are generously studded with quotable lines, the razor-sharp dialogue and caustic maxims are made even more enjoyable by the cast’s tendency to spit out pearl after pearl with conversational ease rather than showboating bravado. Under Shapiro’s firm-handed direction, this is flawless ensemble playing.
Violet may be a card-carrying bitch, but her humor and intelligence are never obscured in Dunagan’s magisterially brutal performance (imagine a really pissed-off Judy Davis), exposing just enough of the fragile cracks in her dragon-lady persona to make her a human monster. She’s hawk-eyed even when staggering around on a pharmaceutical cloud (“No one slips anything by me”), and her careful negotiation of the stairs or her dancing to Eric Clapton are brilliant pieces of drug-addled shtick.
There’s not a weak link in the cast, but Reed wrings perhaps the juiciest black comedy out of a kind of cringe-inducing relative most folks will recognize, while Morton is simply marvelous as a strong but exasperated woman, slumping under the weight of disappointment, failure and the terrifying awareness that, in many ways, she’s her mother’s daughter. “At least do me the courtesy of recognizing when I’m demeaning you,” she hisses at Bill after getting his girlfriend’s name wrong.
Letts specializes here in the wounds only families can inflict upon each other, eloquently expressing, through Ivy, the view that the bonds of blood are to some extent a myth: “a random selection of cells.” The slow disintegration of that connection in families, marriages and in America as a country causes Barbara to reflect sorrowfully on the fact no one even sees it disappearing: “Dissipation is actually much worse than cataclysm.”
Letts sets the play in a very specific landscape of desolation (“This is the Plains … some spiritual affliction, like the Blues,” says Barbara), and his construction adheres to the best dramatic potboiler tradition. Punctuated by strains of bluesy jazz, act one closes on a death, act two on a decisive shift in power, and the final act on a more prosaic but nonetheless effective note of bleak destiny.
There are terrific speeches here and sizzling confrontations, and while it can’t be too long before someone snaps up this meaty material as a film property, it’s hard to imagine it ever again shaped quite so masterfully as in this dynamite production.