There’s a cliche that British playwrights use their talent to address sociopolitical issues, while American playwrights focus on the family. But some of the greatest American plays do both, using a contentious clan as a metaphor for a sick society. Think of two contemporary classics staged locally earlier this year, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Sam Shepard’s Buried Child. Or, for that matter, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. For all those writers, smashing our sentimentalized view of family life is a way of exposing even larger lies.
The latest in a long and distinguished line of such plays is Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, which premiered at Chicago’s superb Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2007 before moving to Broadway and winning the Pulitzer Prize. It has finally arrived in Southern California, in a finely honed touring production at the Ahmanson Theatre. Suffice to say it lives up to its hype.
Letts’ dark comedy is big in every sense of the word: There are big themes, a big set (a beautifully fragile three-story prairie home, designed by Todd Rosenthal) and a big cast (13 actors, all brilliant). It also runs a bit over three and one-half hours. Yet it is so engrossing, it feels far shorter. Time flies when you are veering back and forth between laughing hard and gasping in amazement.
August: Osage County takes place at the family home of the Westons, located an hour’s drive outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Beverly (Jon DeVries), a retired literature professor, made a splash some 40 years earlier with a book of poetry, and never recovered from his brief burst of notoriety. He’s now a full-time alcoholic. His wife Violet (Estelle Parsons) is recovering from cancer of the mouth, which does not stop her from smoking cigarettes. She is also addicted to a variety of prescription drugs.
One day, Beverly disappears, and the couple’s three grown daughters (along with Violet’s sister) descend upon the house to offer their support. They’ve brought with them various spouses and fiances, as well as Beverly and Violet’s only granddaughter, a 14-year-old who has gotten a head start on the family tradition of using mood-altering substances to get through the day.
During the next few days, old secrets get revealed, old scores get settled, and old grudges get regurgitated. Yes, it’s a familiar scenario, but Letts’ biting wit makes it all seem remarkably fresh and vivid. The cut-to-the-bone insults fly freely in all directions, and they’re as hilarious as they are hurtful.
Although she has serious competition, the winner in the sharp-tongue contest is clearly the family matriarch. Violet defends herself as a “truth-teller,” but in fact she has a large streak of sadism. She’s suffering-as she regularly reminds us, she has been suffering her whole life-and she’s determined to make everyone around her share in her misery.
It’s a great role, and one that actresses will be begging to play for many years to come. But it’s hard to imagine anyone topping Parsons. Her impeccable timing means each of her verbal bombs explodes precisely when and where it can do the most damage. She also contributes some marvelous physical bits, including several involving her traversing a treacherous stairway while high as a kite.
But the entire cast is close to flawless. Director Anna Shapiro has been with the show from the beginning, and her affinity for the material is evident: She expertly manages the play’s emotional swings between horror and hilarity, as well as its brief, aborted detours into tenderness.
At one point, the characters get into a generational argument, with Violet and her sister insisting their kids don’t know what real suffering is, since they didn’t grow up during the Depression. It’s a fair point, except that it misses the larger issue: Every member of this family is a self-centered child. “What about my needs?” is the subtext behind virtually every outburst. In a household devoid of genuine warmth, everybody learned early to look out for him or herself, and this has left all the characters cold, confused, and unable to connect.
Letts is clearly making a statement about the American mythology of self-reliance-not to mention our penchant for shallowness and self-deception. But with the exception of one short speech, he doesn’t hammer the point. Instead, he takes iconic scenes like the extended family gathered around the dinner table and gleefully allows them to self-destruct into orgies of bitter recrimination.
If that sounds like Eugene O’Neill, yes, his spirit is hovering nearby. But so are those of Kaufman and Hart: At times, August: Osage County feels like the evil twin of You Can’t Take It With You. Letts portrays a world of lost souls, for whom the search for meaning stops at a bottle, a drug cabinet or a fresh piece of young flesh. We laugh hard and often, but we’re laughing past the graveyard.
August: Osage County runs daily except Mondays through Oct. 18 at the Ahmanson Theatre in the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles. Tickets are $20 to $80. Information: 213-972-4400 or centertheatregroup.org.