Family patriarch Beverly Weston, a wasted poet whose disappearance detonates a chain reaction of unrelieved acrimony, once described America as "pretty much a whorehouse, but at least it used to have some promise. Now it's just a shithole." Amazingly, every time Letts lets us have it again, every time he smacks us in the face (or whomps us over the head with a frying pan) to remind us of our own terrible failures, we take the abuse, because his play is so terribly beautiful.
Ostensibly we're dealing here with one extended family, but beneath that domestic surface Letts' priorities are political. When Beverly's acrid wife Violet slurs, "This house is falling apart," she's not simply talking about the gloomy three-story structure where she imbibes her booze and pops her pills. At the evening's outset, Violet's window shades are affixed to the walls with duct tape; light does not intrude on her crepuscular world. By the end of this nearly three-and-a-half-hour thrill ride, that will change, and the light will become almost blinding.
One can only imagine the time Letts spent, not so much writing and rewriting his play, but structuring it so as to ensure that the onslaught of jaw-dropping surprises is evenly distributed. The evening traces a clear rising line; it never grows tiresome or redundant. Many a critic has compared August: Osage County to lengthy dramas like Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night and Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I would suggest that Letts is more in the mold of Lanford Wilson in the 1970s, when Wilson was writing plays like Fifth of July and The Hot l Baltimore for the Circle Repertory Company. August: Osage County was written for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. That's why there are thirteen roles, all of them juicy: The play was designed to give actors work. But, perhaps because Letts is an also an actor, August is more muscular and virile than anything Wilson wrote; the undercurrents run deeper.
This national company does not include any of the original Chicago actors, but it has been directed by Anna D. Shapiro, a member of the Steppenwolf ensemble that staged the original production in 2007. Not for one second does Shapiro call attention to her work. Yet the action is so fluid, you know you are in the presence of great direction. And the actors respond with relish. I suppose we could describe this as ensemble acting, but it also feels like tag-team acting. With so many characters carrying the load so evenly, it's as if the ever-fresh actors are constantly spelling one another. Whereas effective stagings of Long Day's Journey and Virginia Woolf? leave viewers depleted, August: Osage County leaves us exhilarated. Three hours and twenty-five minutes? No way!
This sublime confluence of playwright, director and actor leads to indelible moments and images that are not to be soon forgotten. Like, for instance, midway through Act Three when Shannon Cochran as Barbara, the eldest daughter who is as commanding in a crisis as Alexander Haig, faces said crisis by jumping onto the living-room sofa as if she single-handedly is stopping the Oklahoma land rush. Or Libby George as Violet's sweet-potato sister, who can take a simple sentence like "This situation is fraught" and make it sound more delicious than her green-bean casserole. Or Angelica Torn, who delivers the aforementioned line, "You are monsters!" with such ferocity that the Fox Theatre rafters tremble.
Then there is Estelle Parsons as the withering Violet. Almost from the day she assumed this role late in the Broadway run, Parsons' portrayal has been the stuff of hyperbole. But to see her onstage is to realize that the hyperbole was strictly reportage. Parsons has been acting for nearly half a century. Yet it's as if her entire career has been directed to this moment and this role. When, late in Act Two, she stands before her entire family like a multiheaded Hydra, devouring them all, theater becomes a gift. To see a performance so uncompromising, so devastating, yet so artfully simple, is a privilege.
"Can we all just stop kidding ourselves?" Violet asks. "Wouldn't we be better off, all of us, if we stopped lying about these things and told the truth?" The truth is that this production of Tracy Letts' August: Osage County is a thrilling event. Individually, these characters may be ignoble, but collectively they combust into an engulfing evening that's inflammatory and majestic. See it now, because it's a fairly safe prediction that this play will never be so completely satisfying again.