Of course there's no real way for me to write about August: Osage County because I feel a (somewhat spurious) personal connection to the thing. I have a mostly visual memory of being at Tracy Letts' 13th birthday party in Durant, Oklahoma--I would have been five--and picking out a firecracker for someone of age to set off. No, he wouldn't know me from Adam, but I had fond, vague memories of his folks, Billie (a novelist) & Dennis, who has what amounts to a one-aria role--lovingly and lyrically delivered--in his son's sprawling, grandiose, wonderful play. He's the kind of person that makes you, despite everything, miss the South. So there's a substantial misting of sentiment on the lens.
After the play, I stood outside the stage door, feeling a tiny bit like Eve Harrington, and because I am apparently still five years old, muttered "Mr. Letts" when Dennis walked out. As we stood in the cold, surprised to know each other so many years later, someone I can tell you about more objectively walked out, kissed him on the cheek, and went on her way. That would be Amy Morton, one of under ten things I miss about Chicago.* Ms. Morton is, on the basis of what I've seen, as riveting an actress as they make, and I've never been at any of her birthday parties. In the impossible opening monologue of Homebody:Kabul she spoke for an hour and then vanished, haunting the rest of the play.
Here, in August, as Barbara Weston, she is asked to make a long, grueling transformation whose finality is announced at the end of the second act by one of the most shattering curtain lines I have ever witnessed. She delivers it with the kind of terror and truth you associate with Silja at the end of Jenufa's second act ("Jako by sem smrt nacuhovala!") It took several minutes to stop ringing in my ears. The role contains notes of cruelty, despair, love, and a hundred other things; whether they're reined in to realistically fit in one digestible character by Ms. Morton's art or Mr. Letts' vision, I cannot say.
The second act is the strongest; at other times during the play it's possible to regard what you're taking in as extraordinarily polished southern gothic. Isherwood, in the Times, said as much: the raw materials here are those of pulp genres, and in fact the single moment in over three hours that struck me as a misstep was the one that most self-consciously tried to escape this genre, strove most seriously for bigness, the final moment of the play. Up to that moment, though--a sentimental one in its way--the younger Letts strikes the damndest balance between the essential sympathy for his creations without which no play is very worth watching and a merciless black humor founded on genuinely unsettling, existential skepticism. (Without that, black humor is a teenager's bravado and nothing more.)
Even when the play succeeds mostly as wickedness, it's a sort of miracle of pacing and of ensemble. The playwright knows when to let a joke go on far too long (if you've seen anything more uncomfortably funny than the scene where they say grace recently, email me) and when to make everything happen at once. The latter happens as fluidly as it does, I think, in part thanks to a game and agile director, but also very much because things like that happen when you have actors who really feel each other's rhythms. It's kind of a shame Broadway doesn't have an ensemble like Steppenwolf, where that phenomenon is the bedrock everything rests upon.
Morton, then, is prima inter pares, sharing the spotlight with the likes of Deanna Dunagan, in many ways the star, who goes for broke as Violet, the matriarch and the undoing of the Weston family. She's given some tough material and sails through it, funny as she is dreadful. Dunagan provides no footholds for understanding Violet; to do so would ring false with everything else going on. Instead she barrels through the role, and if you're with her, you're with her, and if not, well, at least she's not real, because you wouldn't want to be on her bad side. Jeff Perry plays husband and foil to Morton's Barbara, the two of them portraying a marriage in the last stages of distress. It's great to watch them shift responsibility for their demise as a couple, suggesting at many times that culpability where two people are concerned is neither stable nor proportional. On balance, Barbara is about 40% to blame; her husband, about 75%. There are plenty of dark suggestions here about how likely any two people are to make it, often made palatable with a devastatingly funny riposte.
Letts picks interesting targets, not all of them safe. The moment I'm hearing most reactions to is a lethal smackdown directed at "the greatest generation." I of course will reveal nothing. He also doesn't exempt kids from his withering gaze, making good use of Madeleine Martin, who you may see occasionally in your nightmares if you took in The Pillow Man (by Martin MacDonough, who cites Letts' earlier, more physically violent plays as an inspiration, I read). Martin now plays an understandably creepy wreck of a teenager.
A certain type of New Yorker will get a kick out of knowing the role of Johnna is played by Jerry's girlfriend in the "Indian giver" episode of Seinfeld. Probably something she's trying to escape, but I couldn't help bringing it up. Her role is the only one that gives me pause. There's an element of the "magical negro" in a native American variant in her final moments, but enough has been given to her earlier that it's not a serious failing.
The show has no serious failing. Even the design strikes this often visually obtuse viewer as somehow simultaneously expansive and efficient, evocative of a place and what it has come to mean, being there.
This is a limited run, folkses, and after the Times review, I imagine despite the fate of musicless plays on Broadway, you may need to get while the getting's good.
*the others are: about four friends, Margie's Candies in Bucktown, blond boys of Nordic heritage who never give me a second look, and Harold's Fried Chicken.