In January, the curtain will rise on a play so highly anticipated in Tulsa that the town has been buzzing for more than a year. Native son Tracy Letts will bring his Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning drama August: Osage County home to Oklahoma.
Letts, who is son to author Billie and actor Dennis, loosely based the play on his maternal grandparents and the turmoil caused by his grandmother's alcohol and drug addiction.
Letts, an actor and writer in Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, debuted August at Steppenwolf in August of 2007. It was on Broadway that December.
"I just wanted to tell a story--a story about my family, about my memory of that time, my memory of my family at that time," the playwright told Urban Tulsa Weekly via telephone last week.
"It provoked such strong feelings in me as a 10-year-old that they stayed with me for a long time. The suicide of my grandfather continued to ripple thru my family generations afterward.
"And my grandmother's drug addiction, while it plays out over the course of three and a half hours in the play, in reality played out over about 10 years. It was inherently dramatic and funny and horrible and depressing and all of those things," said Letts. "I guess my initial impulse was just to tell a story. The story of a family, using my family as a kind of very rough template."
The play is centered on a reunion of the Weston family in Pawhuska. At its prologue, Beverly, the Weston patriarch, originally played by Dennis Letts, who died earlier this year from cancer, is conversing with Johnna, a young Cheyenne Indian woman hired to cook, clean and care for Beverly's wife Violet.
Beverly sets the tone of the play, lamenting his wife's addiction, her demons, his family's past and what his life has become. It is his only appearance in the play.
In act one, members of the Weston family have gathered in concern for their patriarch, who hasn't been seen in five days. Through their interactions with one another, the Weston children and their spouses display the odd, tumultuous nature of their relationships with one another and with their parents.
They learn at the close of act one that their father's body as been found in a lake, where he apparently committed suicide. In act two, the family gathers for Beverly's funeral, and Violet's drug addiction becomes increasingly apparent as she spirals out of control.
Tensions between family members, especially Violet and her daughter Barbara, escalate, ending a formal family meal in a fist fight. Barbara uses the altercation as an occasion to confront her mother about her drug use. She calls a doctor and rids the entire house of Violet's prescription drugs.
By the third act, the family is in utter collapse, as Violet, her sister and daughters struggle to manage the infidelity, incest and abuse that are overtaking their lives.
In the end, it appears their relationships are irreconcilable, and Violet is left with Johnna, who tells her, "This is the way the world ends; this is the way the world ends."
The play's Broadway run closed on June 28, 2009, after 18 previews and 648 performances. It embarked on a U.S. tour last month, making Denver its first stop. On production now in San Francisco, August will be at Tulsa's Performing Arts Center Jan. 26-31.
"It's unorthodox, this tour, but I think producers always thought, and I agree, that because August deals with people in rural Oklahoma, there's an audience for it everywhere else in country, outside of New York and Chicago," said Letts. "And we were eager to reach this audience, to let them have the experience with the play that audiences in New York and Chicago did."
Letts called the tour unorthodox because he said, typically, straight plays (non-musicals) don't tour, and if they do, it's because they have some celebrity actor or other bit of fame associated with them.
"I'm especially thrilled about Tulsa," Letts said. "Certainly, if plays like August rarely tour, then cities like Tulsa rarely get those tours to come to town. I hope Tulsa packs the place out. It would be great for them, great for Oklahoma."
Letts will be in Tulsa for August's opening night, even though he is the lead in Steppenwolf's American Buffalo by David Mamet.
"When I realized the dates of the play conflicted with the Tulsa opening, I called my art director at the theater and said, 'You need to get an understudy for me for opening night. I can't miss first performance of August in Tulsa,'" said Letts. "It's too important to me, to my family, to the community and the cast. The cast is very aware--I've helped make the cast aware--of their missionary responsibility to take the play to cities like Tulsa around the country. So I just can't wait. I can't wait to watch it with the Tulsa audience."
Letts said the most rewarding thing about his experience with August: Osage County has been having the opportunity to work with his father before he died.
"That was an irreplaceable experience, and no play I do for the rest of my life will match that," he said.
In addition, Letts said, he has been rewarded by the audiences' experience with the play, by the ways in which they relate to and connect with his work.
"You see people in the audience respond viscerally to what's onstage. They see it as their own experience, or akin to their own experience. And then they realize the people sitting next to them, whom they don't know at all, also recognize the play as their experience or akin to their experience.
"That's when beauty of community response, of audience give and take, takes over. It's what theatre is all about, and it's been the most gratifying element for me as a playwright."
August plays at the PAC's Chapman Music Hall at 7pm Tuesday, Jan. 26 through Thursday, Jan. 28; at 7:30pm Friday, Jan. 29; and at 1:30pm and 7:30pm Saturday, Jan. 30 and Sunday, Jan. 31. Tickets are $20-$55 at www.tulsapac.com.
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