The 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama has been awarded to Tulsa native Tracy Letts, son of novelist Billie Letts, for his new drama August: Osage County.
Letts's play has taken first Chicago, then Broadway, by storm. Its popularity has come as a surprise to almost everyone. The play breaks many of the rules expected of a popular, successful production. Most evident is its three-act length; it clocks in at three hours and 20 minutes in an age when scripts are expected to take around 90 minutes to perform. Similarly, most plays have small casts to keep expenses low, but August: Osage County has 13 characters with none of the roles performed by an A-list star. On Broadway, producers prefer a name they can put in lights to draw in audiences, but none of these actors' names have that kind of power.
After this play, however, they just might. And Letts's definitely will.
In the wake of Mr. Beverly Weston's apparent suicide, the Weston family has returned to their home in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, about 60 miles northwest of Tulsa, to mourn him. During the following three and a half hours of stage time, Violet Weston will verbally eviscerate each and every one of her relatives, her own three daughters included.
According to Peter Marks of The Washington Post, Violet, played by Deanna Dunagan, is "a cancer-ridden, Percocet-gulping, word-slurring gorgon so scabrous you could imagine her reducing Martha to tears in the first minutes of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
Violet's caustic treatment of her relatives swings wildly from hilarious to heartrending, inviting no easy comparison with other works. The drug use, incest, abuse, infidelity, and the dramatic revelations of all these vices has sparked an array of critical comparisons, from Edward Albee and Sam Shepard's family dramas to soap operas and reality television.
"[Letts] mixes comedy with tragedy so skillfully that you almost have to think twice when you hear 'He killed himself' delivered as a punch line," said Matt Budd of the Huffington Post.
Critics have unanimously raved about the cast, especially Dunagan, who is widely expected to win a Tony for her performance.
Letts's own father, Dennis Letts, played Beverly Weston, even after being diagnosed with and treated for cancer in September 2007. He died the following February.
Before his death, he told his son he expected him to win the Pulitzer for this play, but did not live to see him receive it.
"The genesis of August: Osage County can be traced to my deliberate desire to write for an extant acting ensemble: in this case, Steppenwolf Theatre Company," said Letts of his play.
"One of the great things about being a member of this company is that I could go to Martha Lavey (Steppenwolf's artistic director) and say, 'I want to write a very large family drama, three acts, three hours long, 13 characters and have her say, 'OK. Good. Write it,'" he said in an interview with Associated Press.
Steppenwolf Theatre, of Chicago, produced the play. It premiered on June 28. Its immediate success attracted national attention, and in December it moved into Broadway's Imperial Theater.
The Imperial requires renovation to its backstage area in preparation for upcoming performances of Billy Elliot so August: Osage County will move into The Music Box, less than a block away, in late April. It will continue to play there until its national tour.
Lavey said she has always loved "the scale of the thing."
"In three acts, Tracy tells a multi-generational family story that traces the legacy of the lies and wounds, the alliances and crazy tendernesses that define our most intimate connections."
The primary complaint that most critics have about the play is, despite its epic scope, its structure is too neat. A few have even accused its characters of shallowness.
"For all Mr. Letts's undeniable talent and daring, his play is a melodramatic potboiler. It overreaches for metaphoric significance about the shaky, divided state of America. The circular pop psychology that explains the festering wounds of the Weston family is reductively neat. The many characters hold little or nothing in reserve; they reveal savage emotions, but no mystery," said John Heilpern of The New York Observer.
Such critics, due to that alleged shallowness, have called the play a soap opera.
Steve Oxman of Variety disagrees:
"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 clichés have sharp edges."
Nearly all critics have been in agreement with such interpretations and assert that Letts consciously employs the narrative patterns of lesser forms like the soap opera to great effect. Time named August: Osage County as #1 in its Top Ten Theater Productions of 2007.
The Pulitzer Prize was announced April 7. For it, Letts will receive $10,000.
The Steppenwolf plans a national tour, but has not yet announced which cities the show will visit. For more information, visit www.augustonbroadway.com.
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