EmptyImperial Theatre, New York
Playwright Tracy Letts had demonstrated his mastery of contemporary noir thrillers with such works as "Killer Joe" and "Bug," but nothing in his previous work prepares one for the depth and mastery demonstrated in his "August: Osage County."
This dysfunctional family comedy-drama, now playing on Broadway after a triumphant premiere run at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, is so rich and entertaining that it makes nearly every other current American play seem anemic in comparison.
The work has been compared to, among other things, "Long Day's Journey Into Night," which is a bit of a stretch. But this mara-thon (three hours and 20 minutes) evening is consistently compelling, emotionally resonant and, more often than not, hilarious.
The simple narrative centers on the unfortunate family reunion of the Weston clan of Pawhuska, Okla., in the stiflingly hot days of August. The reunion is prompted by the mysterious disappearance of the family's patriarch, Beverly (Dennis Letts, the playwright's father), a one-time poet and university professor whose relationship with his prescription drug-addled wife, Violet (Deanna Dunagan), is summed up in the opening scene when he says to their young American Indian housekeeper, Johanna (Kimberly Guerrero): "My wife takes pills, and I drink. That's the bargain we've struck."
Uneasily awaiting news about their father are his three daughters: Barbara (Amy Morton), bitterly angry over her professor husband's (Jeff Perry) infidelity with a young co-ed; Ivy (Sally Murphy), who has remained in the family home even until her middle years; and Karen (Mariann Mayberry), who arrives with her new fiance, Steve (Brian Kerwin). Also on hand are Uncle Charlie (Francis Guinan) and Aunt Mattie Fae (Rondi Reed), whose marriage also has clearly seen better times; their nebbishy son, Little Charles (Ian Barford); and Barbara and Bill's precocious, pot-smoking 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Madeleine Martin).
By the end of the long drama, numerous family secrets have been bared, including one romantic relationship that is too close for comfort. And more than a few of the characters behave badly, from drugged-out Violet's relentlessly profane abuse of her children to Steve's sexual advances toward the adolescent Jean to Aunt Mattie's verbal skewering of her clearly emotionally damaged son.
That we relish in all this misery is a testament to the playwright's gift for hilariously pungent dialogue and incisive characterizations. While the themes and concerns of "August: Osage County" are hardly unfamiliar, they are rendered with a freshness and vitality that give them renewed life.
Director Anna D. Shapiro has staged the production -- housed in a magnificently detailed set depicting the sprawling three-story house -- in masterful fashion. And the acting by the large ensemble cast, imported nearly intact from Chicago (Kerwin and Martin are new), couldn't be bettered. Although all have their moments to shine, particular kudos must go to Dunagan and Morton, whose ferocious yet fiercely hilarious turns as the wounded mother and daughter are ultimately as deeply moving as they are entertaining.
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY
Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jean Doumanian, Steve Traxler, Jerry Frankel, Ostar Prods., Jennifer Manocherian, the Weinstein Co., Debra Black/Daryl Roth, Ronald & Marc Frankel/Barbara Freitag and Rick Steiner/Staton Bell Group A Steppenwolf Theatre Company production
Playwright: Tracy Letts
Director: Anna D. Shapiro
Set designer: Todd Rosenthal
Costume designer: Ana Kuzmanic
Lighting designer: Ann G. Wrightson
Sound designer: Richard Woodbury
Original music: David Singer
Beverly Weston: Dennis Letts
Violet Weston: Deanna Dunagan
Barbara Fordham: Amy Morton
Bill Fordham: Jeff Perry
Jean Fordham: Madeleine Martin
Ivy Weston: Sally Murphy
Karen Weston: Mariann Mayberry
Mattie Fae Aiken: Rondi Reed
Charlie Aiken: Francis Guinan
Little Charles: Ian Barford
Johanna Monevata: Kimberly Guerrero
Steve Heidebrecht: Brian Kerwin
Sheriff Deon Gilbreau: Troy West