CHICAGO — It’s a problem every playwright wants to face: How do you follow up an enormous success?
Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” dominated the nontuner categories at the Tony Awards, and scooped just about every major theater prize this season, including the Pulitzer. Probably more surprising than all the accolades, the nearly 3½-hour drama has proven that rarest of entities: a nonstar-driven commercial hit play, even slated for a national tour starting in San Francisco in summer 2009.
While it’s not yet confirmed, plans also are being discussed to launch a production at the National Theater in London, with original Steppenwolf cast members crossing the Pond.
So one could understand if Letts were suffering some personal anxiety, trying to figure out what comes next amid unfamiliar pressure. But in this case, Letts already knew. Before “August” even opened last July at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, where Letts is an ensemble member, “Superior Donuts” had been slated for production, also at Steppenwolf, based on a first act draft he had shown to artistic director Martha Lavey. It opens June 28.
“I might have felt pressure if ‘August’ had become such a big hit and I didn’t know what was next for me,” Letts says. “But ‘Superior Donuts’ was already in the chute, so to speak, so I was able to simply focus on the work at hand.”
The new work boasts a cast of nine, but, according to helmer Tina Landau, the play “is so very different from ‘August’ that you almost cannot compare. One is a big, sprawling family epic of the Plains; the other is a tightly focused drama unfolding in a donut shop in Chicago.”
“Superior Donuts” follows the relationship between the owner of a decrepit Chicago donut shop, played by Michael McKean, and his only employee, an African-American teenager with ideas for change, played by Jon Michael Hill, one of Steppenwolf’s newest ensemble members.
“I knew I wanted ‘Superior Donuts’ to play in a different key than ‘August,’ and I believe it does,” Letts says. He also knew he wanted to set his next work in Chicago, selecting the North Side neighborhood of Uptown. “I felt I was through, for now, exploring the part of the country from which I come, and that I wanted to explore my adopted home. I’ve been a Chicagoan for more than 20 years now.”
The setting has particular resonance to Letts. “Donut shops are evocatively anachronistic,” he explains. “They’re on their way out. In fact, there are no more independently owned donut shops on the North Side of Chicago. ‘Dunkin’ Donuts,’ of course, is ubiquitous.”
There is one undeniable impact that the success of “August” has had on the evolution of “Superior Donuts.” Amy Morton was originally supposed to direct, but she continues to perform on Broadway as the eldest of the three Weston sisters in “August: Osage County.”
“I was disappointed that Amy couldn’t direct,” Letts says. “But she obviously had the best excuse in the world!”
Letts and Anna D. Shapiro, who took home a directing Tony for “August,” agreed it wasn’t the right time to reunite. “Not for any personal reasons,” Letts explains, “but because we felt it was the wise move artistically; being close with one’s collaborators is a good thing, but being too close breeds bad habits, I think.”
In stepped Landau. Despite the fact both Landau and Letts are Steppenwolf ensemble members, the two had never worked together before.
Both have been aware throughout the rehearsal process that people will be comparing the new play to “August,” but there isn’t much they can do other than stay focused.
Says the scribe, “If audiences have extra expectations of ‘Superior Donuts’ because it is ‘a Tracy Letts play,’ I am in no position to complain about that. What more could a playwright ask for?”