Extramarital affairs, suicide, drugs and incest have one thing in common in a new performance coming to Tulsa--family.
"My wife takes pills and I drink."
It sounds like a match made in heaven, doesn't it?
Those words are the opening lines of Tracy Letts' acclaimed August: Osage County.
Anticipation is bubbling over for the return of the native, so to speak. Letts brings his epic (three-and-a-half hours and counting), award-winning (a Tony, a Pulitzer, an Outer Critics' Circle, a New York Drama Critics' Circle and two Drama Desks) masterpiece to Tulsa, only 50 miles from Pawhuska, the town on which it is based.
To say the story hits close to home, however, is much more than being homespun. Letts' portrait of a dysfunctional, Midwestern American family took tawdry New York City by storm as much for Letts' storytelling as for his trenchant commentary on the contemporary red state of affairs.
Perhaps that's what we're most looking forward to: We don't just want to see Letts' brilliant work come to life on stage (and later, on screen); we want to see ourselves as we are, whether we are ready for it or not. Here it comes.
Letts' play, set in northeastern Oklahoma's Osage County in August, deals with the suicide of the Weston family's patriarch, Beverly. As his wife Violet and their daughters Barbara, Ivy and Karen gather, their family thread slowly and surely unravels.
The tale is based upon Letts' own family experience. His parents are author Billie Letts, who lives in Tulsa, and the late Dennis Letts, an actor who originated the role of Beverly in Chicago and on Broadway.
"I just wanted to tell a story, a story about my family and my memory of that time, of my family at that time," Letts said of writing August: Osage County.
Billie Letts' mother inspired Violet, and her father inspired Beverly. Tracy Letts was a boy when his grandfather committed suicide and the remainder of his family was irreversibly fractured.
"It provoked such strong feelings in me as a 10-year-old that they stayed with me for a long time," he said. "The suicide of my grandfather continued to ripple through my family generations afterward.
"And my grandmother's drug addiction, while it plays out over the course of three weeks in the play, in reality played out over about 10 years.
"It was inherently dramatic and funny and horrible and depressing and all those things," Letts said in a phone interview at the launch of the play's U.S. tour. "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."
Behind the Pen
Letts, 44, was raised in Durant and left Oklahoma shortly after graduating high school. He followed a girlfriend to Chicago and, at 20, joined Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
Although originally an actor--Letts still acts with the company--his career as a playwright is what has garnered him fame and praise. His first play, Killer Joe, debuted in 1998 and was followed by Bug, which was adapted for the screen in 2006.
Almost as soon as he finished with August, Letts got to work on Superior Donuts, which premiered in 2008 with Steppenwolf and debuted on Broadway last year.
"One of the only smart things I've maybe ever done is start work on Superior Donuts before August really ever hit," Letts said. "I knew it was a big play, a large gesture, and I knew it would be the kind of thing where I might struggle with the next project thinking, 'What are they going to say? Who's looking over my shoulder?' I thought it best to get moving on next project, and I'm glad I did."
Although August is based firmly on his family's history-- and although, at public appearances, his mother likes to joke at being angry at him for writing it--Letts said he never felt any backlash from his family at divulging their secrets and sins.
"It's emotional for mom," Letts said. "It deals with the suicide of her father, the real mess her mother was, the habits she created. It's an emotional subject for her.
"Though it will always be an emotional subject for her, it was also a long time ago now. Her perspective is different, too.
"My parents are very gifted teachers and editors," Letts said. "I give them everything I write. My mom's reaction, it was an emotional response, but the first thing she said was, 'I think you've been very kind to my mother,' which is strange, given what a tough cookie Violet is in the play.
"But I'm glad that was her response. She said, 'I would never want you to feel like you have to lie about this, about your family, your background.' Because it's my story, too. It's what happened to me, not just them."
Letts said the most rewarding aspect of August's success hasn't been the awards it's earned, but the time it afforded him to spend with his father before his death last year.
"That was an irreplaceable experience, and no play I do for the rest of my life will match that," he said. "That has been the most rewarding part.
"That aside, hearing people respond to this play in a communal kind of way, in ways that the theater is supposed to function (has been rewarding). 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 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."
Plotting the Course
August: Osage County opens with Beverly (played in the touring version by Jon Devries) and Johnna, the Native American caretaker Beverly's hired to look after his wife (played by DeLanna Studi) lightly conversing about Violet's abundant issues--she is addicted to prescription drugs and faces bouts of paranoia and mood swings.
Beverly reveals his wife's personal demons are more than the drugs can cure and seems to matter-of-factly grasp the dreadfulness of his existence as Violet (Estelle Parsons) enters, obviously affected by the medication she's abusing.
In the first act, Violet's daughters and their counterparts have assembled in her home. Beverly hasn't been seen for five days. As her daughters reminisce about their father and wonder what to do, Violet takes to attacking each of them, and to the surface raises many years of suppressed emotion--anger, guilt, animosity, denial.
Barbara Fordham (Shannon Cochran), the eldest Weston daughter at 46, is separated from her husband, Bill (Jeff Still), who is having an affair with a college student. Together, Barbara and Bill have a daughter, Jean (Emily Kinney).
Ivy Weston (Angelica Torn) at 44 is the middle daughter and supposedly "mom's favorite," although Violet constantly and consistently belittles her. The only daughter to remain in Oklahoma, she is a college professor.
At 40, Karen Weston (Amy Warren) is the youngest of the Weston offspring and newly engaged to Steve Heidebrecht (Laurence Lau).
At the end of the first act, the local sheriff reveals Beverly's body has been found in the lake, which begins Violet's downward spiral.
Act Two opens with Beverly's funeral, where Violet's drug habit is realized by the rest of the family. The scene culminates in a family dinner where Ivy admits to having an affair with Little Charles (Stephen Riley Key), her first cousin, and their plans to move to New York.
As tensions mount, Barbara and Violet begin a physical, violent fight that ends with Barbara screaming for a doctor, while she searches for and disposes of all of Violet's prescription drugs.
Things only get worse in Act Three.
Violet's doctor thinks she might have brain damage and, though she's off her meds, she is as hateful as ever.
Mattie Fae Aiken (Libby George), Violet's sister and Little Charles' mother, reveals that her son was conceived by Beverly, making Ivy and Little Charles half-sister and brother.
Karen's fiancé, Steve, and 14-year-old Jean smoke dope together, and Johnna begins hitting Steve repeatedly with a frying pan after she catches him attempting to molest Jean.
When she attempts to tell Karen about the incident, Karen lashes out at Jean. Barbara, Jean's mother, then engages Karen in an ugly confrontation. The characters' relationships further deteriorate from there, the family--and the individuals that comprise it--self-imploding.
When the dust clears, the only ones left are Violet, Barbara and Johnna. Violet blames Barbara for Beverly's suicide and, depressed by her mother's irrationality, Barbara leaves. The Weston family has expired and only Johnna is left, quoting T.S. Eliot: "This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends."
New York Times critic Charles Isherwood said August: Osage County is "probably the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years. Oh, forget probably: It is, flat-out, no asterisks and without qualifications, the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years."
Letts premiered his play with Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, in which he is an actor and writer, in June of 2007. The play opened on Dec. 4, 2007, in the Imperial Theater and then moved to the Music Box Theater in April of 2008. Its Broadway run closed June 28, 2009, after 648 performances and 18 previews.
It debuted in London's National Theater in November of 2008, and the U.S. tour launched July 24, 2009, in Denver at the Buell Theatre.
A film adaptation of August: Osage County is in the works. At the time of his conversation with Urban Tulsa Weekly, Letts had just finished writing the screenplay.
"I told my girlfriend when I sent it off, 'I've been working on this goddamn play for five years. I can't seem to stop,'" Letts said, laughing.
He was active in launching the national tour in Denver and said he's especially excited about bringing the play to Tulsa.
"Straight plays (non-musical productions) don't typically tour, and when they do, they typically have a star attached to them, or it's some kind of very limited tour," Letts said. "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 the country, outside of New York and Chicago.
"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," he said.
"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 when his play opens at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, 110 E. 2nd St., Jan. 26. The show runs through Jan. 31, and tickets are still available a www.tulsapac.com.
"I'm actually doing a play (acting) in Chicago at the time," Letts said. "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 the first performance of August in Tulsa.'
"It's too important to me, to my family, to the community, 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."
Share this article: