Thanks to a new smash hit tearing its way through Broadway, our great state and all of the people who inhabit it may no longer be defined by the rest of the country by a 1943 Rogers and Hammerstein musical. Instead of assuming all Oklahomans ride around in a surrey with fringe on top, they'll now believe we all come from the wombs of pill-poppin' mamas, born into ridiculously dysfunctional families.
Touted by The New York Times as being "the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years," August: Osage County opened in December of 2007. Tracy Letts' dark, comedic play, directed by Anna Shapiro, tells the story of the large Weston family reuniting on its Pawhuska homestead, just outside of Tulsa, after the father disappears.
Beverly Weston, the father, played by the playwright's own father Dennis Letts (his mother is Oklahoma novelist Billie Letts, author of Where the Heart Is, among other books), walks off into the night one summer, and the sharp-tongued, painkiller-addicted matriarch Violet (Deanna Dunagan) is left bitter and alone, calling her three adult daughters home, husbands and boyfriends in tow, to care for her in her hour of need and to get to the bottom of their father's disappearance.
"My wife takes pills and I drink. That's the bargain we've struck," is how Beverly opens the play.
Each of the daughters is a mess in her own right as well, thanks to being witness to the trying relationship their parents have endured. The oldest daughter, Barbara (Amy Morton), is on the verge of divorce and battling her dope-smoking daughter as well. The middle sister, Ivy (Sally Murphy), is engaged in a secret affair with her first cousin, and the youngest, Karen (Mariann Mayberry) is married to a thrice-divorced child molester.
On top of all of their own problems, each member of the Weston clan has a distinct hatred for one another. The mother, suffering from cancer of the mouth (in both a literal and figurative sense) can't stand any of her daughters or her sister, who comes to town with husband and son (Ivy's lover) along. And, the sisters very much dislike one another as well, yet they all somehow make this little reunion work-- in their own ways.
Violet is the definition of "Mommy Dearest," exposing family secrets and digging into everyone's sore spot with the explicit purpose of causing pain to all around her.
But, as every major newspaper and magazine has pointed out, the play isn't just mean-spirited. It's also full of humor and life, and the characters, though they set out to hurt one another, are so vulnerable and open themselves so that you can't help but like them.
But, are they the picture of the typical Midwestern American family as claimed? The prescription drug-addicted, alcoholic, incestuous Midwestern American family? Maybe.
I think they might be every dysfunctional American family you've ever seen, heard or read about rolled up into one. But, and the reason Letts' story has received such raving reviews, there is more truth to the play than perhaps any other seen this decade. And, that's what makes the characters so likable to audiences and critics alike. Though they may be mean and hurtful, they are brutally honest, something I think more Midwestern Americans wish we could be.
Will it come to define Oklahoma and Oklahomans? Maybe.
It seems as though everyone who isn't from here has this idea that we all live in teepees and ride horses to work. And while it would be equally inaccurate for those same folks to assume everyone in Oklahoma comes from a troubled past and has some sort of substance addiction, Letts' painting of the Midwestern American family as one riddled with faults and imperfections is probably right on. And, there are other things, small details in the play, that ring true to Oklahoma--the sweltering summer nights, the backdrop of flat plains, the bluesy jazz music in the background. Letts knows these subtle Oklahoma details will bring life and character to a state some can't even point to on a map.
Letts grew up in Durant and graduated from Durant High School. At 20, he moved to Chicago and worked for 11 years at the world-famous and highly acclaimed Steppenwolf Theatre Company, where he also wrote the very successful Killer Joe and Bug. August also found its success first at Steppenwolf before moving to Broadway.
His mother Billie has said of his writing, "I try to be upbeat and funny. Everybody in Tracy's stories gets naked or dead."
Tracy has said he gets his inspiration from Tennessee Williams, Jim Thompson and William Faulkner. In all of his plays, his characters struggle with moral and spiritual questions. Autobiographical? Perhaps. Letts is also a recovering alcoholic and has been sober since the mid-1990s. Even if the play isn't based on his own experiences or those of people close to him, I think everyone can relate in some way to his writings.
In the end, perhaps Beverly says it best: "Thank God we can't tell the future. We'd never get out of bed."
August: Osage County continues on Broadway for a limited engagement. To learn more about the play, visit www.steppenwolf.org. There's an entire blog dedicated to August that is fascinating. And for those of us who may not make it to New York to see the show, we can only hope it makes its way back home soon.
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