Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 4, 2007
The Steppenwolf Theatre Company production of August: Osage County by Tracy Letts. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro. Scenic design by Todd Rosenthal. Costume design by Ana Kuzmanic. Lighting design by Ann. G. Wrightson. Sound design by Richard Woodbury. Original music by David Singer. Fight Choreographer Chuck Coyl. Dialect Coach Cecilie O’Reilly. Cast: Ian Barford, Deanna Dunagan, Kimberly Guerrero, Francis Guinan, Brian Kerwin, Dennis Letts, Madeleine Martin, Mariann Mayberry, Amy Morton, Sally Murphy, Jeff Perry, Rondi Reed, Troy West.
But it's not merely the barren country's effects on people's souls that's of the most interest here - it's that Broadway audiences are getting a chance to see it at all in its intended form. The play has arrived at the Imperial direct from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company with no shortage of good buzz, heady expectations, or anything else. Spanning 13 characters, three acts, and nearly three and a half hours in an era where four-person, 90-minute-no-intermission outings are rapidly becoming the rule rather than the exception, it's an unabashed throwback to the mid-20th-century Golden Age when playwrights, producers, and audiences understood the value of theatre writ large and writ long.
It's for that reason, as much as content, that the play, which has been directed here by Anna D. Shapiro, has been compared to the works of Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee. The good news is that August: Osage County mostly lives up to that hype: Letts has crafted as stirring and engaging a serious (if laugh-filled) drama as New York has seen since John Patrick Shanley's Doubt (which, incidentally, had four characters and ran 90 intermissionless minutes).
The bad, or rather the worse, news? This sobering saga, about a suddenly absent father (Dennis Letts, Tracy's father, in a fascinating but brief cameo), a matriarch who downs pills as easily as most breathe, and the three daughters trying to pick up the pieces, is a perfect potboiler for today, but feels like its long-term dust collector has come pre-attached. Though the play has all the what-happens-next intensity of his Off-Broadway successes Killer Joe and Bug, Letts has stopped short of imbuing it with the same epic sweep that catapulted key works of yesteryear into the realm of timelessness.
Barbara and her husband Bill (Jeff Perry) are separated, leaving their promiscuous daughter Jean (Madeleine Martin) in the adolescent lurch. Ivy, in her mid 40s, doesn't have a husband and can't talk to anyone except Little Charles (Ian Barford), the klutzy, unemployed son of her aunt Mattie Fae (Rondi Reed) and uncle Charlie (Francis Guinan). Karen's got a new lease on life and a new fiancé, Steve (Brian Kerwin), but still never knows exactly who or what she's dealing with. One finger is all that's necessary to start things toppling, and that's wielded by mother Violet (the excellent Deanna Dunagan): She suffers from mouth cancer, an addiction to painkillers, and - perhaps most destructively (and conveniently) - an insistence on holding nothing back.
Psychologically, it's all extremely satisfying, but this Well-Made Play at times feels too eager to divest its treasures into neatly ordered piles. This makes for a slam-bang second half, when the payoffs of earlier setups are rapidly unleashed, but the play often crackles when it should explode in bursts of white-hot heat, as if keeping the home fires burning were more important than burning the house down. The final cascades of plot, which amplify the many complexities of how Barbara and Ivy stack up to Violet and her sister Mattie push things right to the breaking point, turning potentially stunning turns of plot into yet more fodder for familial strife in the ironically termed Heartland.
The play's too-polished exterior can't prevent it from succeeding as something more than populist pulp - Letts is too masterful a manipulator of exploration and revelations. So is the cast, which as led by the blistering Dunagan is one of the most roundly impressive in recent memory. Morton's slow crumble into dead-eyed oblivion as Barbara slowly inherits Violet's legacy is the most real (and Tony-worthy) work here, but down to the smallest role every actor captures the anguish of being surrounded by hopelessness. With a transportingly elaborate three-tiered house set by Todd Rosenthal, and Shapiro's unforgiving staging, this production is a model of contemporary theatre at its most-daring and risk-taking best; whatever its financial fortunes, it's an unquestionable artistic success.
But one can't help but wish the play itself put as much on the line. The dark territory it covers, the taboos it unveils, and its raw approach at reviving a frequently staid form brand it as a well-heeled Letts Original; its general safeness within those bounds and limited emotional intrusiveness set it apart from many of the canon-defining titles with which it's been frequently likened. "Dissipation is much worse than cataclysm," one character says in lamenting the infection of the entire United States with "the plains." August: Osage County might stake its own claim to greatness - rather than just noteworthy achievement - if Letts didn't so readily agree.