That old stalwart, the grand American family drama — three acts and three-plus hours long, rife with the over-the-top yet intimate cruelties only relatives can heap on one another — is alive and well and living at the Steppenwolf in Chicago. In style and subject matter, Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” self-consciously invites comparison to classics like “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” And to its immense credit, it doesn’t crumble under the weight of these parallels. It’s a deep and highly entertaining work, consistently rich, raw and intense, filled with viciousness and vicious wit. The vision is bleak; its expression is scintillating.
Set in present-day Oklahoma, a landscape depicted as so hard on the human psyche that a character compares “the Plains” to “the Blues,” the play explores the implosion of the Weston family. The patriarch, poet and academic Beverly (played by the writer’s father, Dennis Letts), appears in a prologue, reveals a few basic facts (“My wife takes pills and I drink,” he tells the Cheyenne woman he hires as a housekeeper), and then promptly disappears, causing his three middle-aged daughters to gather and comfort their mother, Violet (a towering perf from Deanna Dunagan).
Letts, known for his plays “Bug” and the Pulitzer-nominated “Man From Nebraska,” wastes no time digging into dirt. Violet enters drugged up and spends little time sober. And while she’s more coherent when unmedicated, she isn’t any nicer. She can be so venomous that Beverly refers to her recently diagnosed mouth cancer as a “punch line.” A somber dinner in act two explodes into a climactic physical confrontation, as Violet simply won’t be satisfied until she has insulted everyone at the table, in particular each of her daughters: Barbara (Amy Morton), Karen (Mariann Mayberry) and Ivy (Sally Murphy).
In a play with a large cast, plenty of secondary dramas unravel, delineated with impeccable clarity by director Anna D. Shapiro. They mostly involve the relationships formed by the daughters in their relentlessly unsuccessful efforts at idealized family: Barbara’s failing marriage to Bill (Jeff Perry) and her difficulties with her pot-smoking teenage daughter (Fawn Johnstin); Karen’s naive hopefulness at the seeming perfection of her new fiancee (Rick Snyder); and Ivy’s secret romance, which twists and turns at calibrated intervals to devastating effect.
“August: Osage County” does at times approach a sudsy potboiler, but Letts has so stripped the work of sentimentality, and has such a gift for combining realism with black comedy, that even its contrivances and cliches have sharp edges.
And while it’s unafraid of life’s ugliness, the play also has an underlying compassion for those forced to deal with it. The focus never ends up on the exceedingly unpleasant truths that emerge so much as what the fully dimensional characters decide to do, or not to do, about them.
The compassion even has something of a corporeal presence in Johnna (Kimberly Guerrero), the protective and nurturing Native American hired in the prologue, who also provides a constant reminder that the Westons don’t exactly have a monopoly on suffering. The nation is built on it.