"Soap opera" is usually associated with unabashedly salacious and over-acted serials, in which all of the characters have bigtime dah-RAMA going on, all the time. But if applying that term to Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play August: Osage County, it's important to stress the second word in "soap opera" over the first.
Sure, the 13 characters who spend the play's three acts in the three-story rural Oklahoma home of Beverly and Violet Weston have enough metaphorical soap suds to fill a large stock tank. But what's amazing about the barrage of tabloid-ready bombs that constantly drop on the audience—Addiction! Cancer! Infidelity! Dope! Incest! Alcoholism! Molestation! Divorce! Suicide!—is how the hilarity and tension masterfully build and intertwine with poetic complexity.
In the end, it's not clear if that pain in your torso comes from the laughing fits or the expansive dark hole that's been shotgun-blasted through your heart. More likely, it's the one-two punch from both.
It's downright operatic. In much the same way that opera lovers continually return to productions of La Traviata and The Flying Dutchman, despite knowing that Violetta's always going to gasp to death from consumption and Senta will again throw herself into the ocean, August: Osage County is the rare three hour-plus play that warrants repeat viewing.
Letts' play is currently on a national tour in the production from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and runs through Jan. 24 at the AT&T Performing Arts Center in the Lexus Broadway Series. It begins with the family patriarch, Beverly (Jon DeVries), welcoming a new employee who will cook and take care of the house. She's a Cheyenne woman named Johnna (DeLanna Studi), and he's a literary man with a plan. Johnna is part of his insurance for knowing that the house—not to mention his painkiller-addicted wife, Violet (Estelle Parsons)—will be taken care of.
By early in the second act, we've met most of the other characters, including all three of the Weston's daughters: Ivy (Angelica Torn), Barbara (Shannon Cochran) and Karen (Amy Warren).
Ivy's having a relationship with the son of Violet's sister and brother-in-law, Mattie Fae (Libby George) and Charlie (Paul Vincent O'Connor). In other words, Ivy and her paramour, Little Charles (Stephen Riley Key), are first cousins. Meanwhile, Barbara and her husband, Bill (Jeff Still), are in the throes of marital problems; and their 15-year-old daughter, Jean (Emily Kinney), is a pot smoker. And then there's the perky Karen, whose new beau, Steve (Laurence Lau), turns out to be even more imperfect than most of the other folks onstage. The 13th character is the sheriff of Pawhuska (Marcus Nelson), who drops the play's first major rip-your-guts-out announcement, and also has a past with Barbara. Who knows? There might even be a future, too.
Except that nobody in this play should hope for much of a future, thanks to the bile that slowly disintegrates their lives and seeps from the direction of Violet. Her mouth cancer isn't nearly as threatening to her as her piehole's other malignant condition—explosive vitriol—is to everyone around her.
The play's highlight, a second-act dinner-table opus, is one of the most brutally funny scenes you'll ever see on stage. It must be seen and heard to be believed. By the end of it—and certainly by the play's close—your first impulse will be to call mom and pop and thank them that your family isn't nearly as screwed up as you previously thought. And then you can happily report that phone conversation at next week's therapy appointment, before telling your shrink that his or her services will no longer be needed. After seeing August: Osage County, you suddenly feel normal.
You can thank Letts' textured play for that little miracle. And also director Anna D. Shapiro, who layers the onstage action as craftily as an opera director who's working at the top of his game. One of the most striking images of this staging is how the character take a final exit from this house of horrors. As each is pushed out—or escapes, depending on how you look at it—the character flees, in pain, along the stage-left white picket fence that runs from the front porch into the wings. Think of it as the same kind of adrenaline-fueled catharsis that comes when some lucky would-be victim in a slasher flick successfully breaks away from the chainsaw-wielding tormentor.
In this case, though, there is some remorse for the chief villain, Violet. Her creation myth would be all the more frightening because it feels so tangible, so utterly feasible.
A big part of that comes from the powerhouse performance by Estelle Parsons, who, at 82, has the remarkable stamina not only to traverse the three stories of Todd Rosenthal's dollhouse of a set, but to stick it out through three hours and 20 minutes of heightened and incredibly intense emotion. Throughout her career, Parsons has often played wacky types, including her Oscar-winning turn in Bonnie and Clyde and the title character's mother on the groundbreaking sitcom Roseanne. Violet makes all of them appear sane.
Interestingly, the heartbreaking Cochran sounds uncannily like Laurie Metcalf, who played Parsons' other daughter on Roseanne. Cochran gives her own award-winning performance here, as the daughter who is more like her mother than she wants to believe, but will still find a way to escape. Because she has to.
The cast in this tour is all-around stellar, and the women are allowed to be more showy because of the large-ness of their characters, which are almost like funhouse mirror-abstractions of the great female roles in Greek tragedy. The men, for the most part, are more grounded. O'Connor gives one of those performances that's so great because his level-headed Charlie goes all but unnoticed when he's onstage with his wife, Mattie Fae. She is the show's most cartoonish role, but dig deeper and you'll find that Mattie Fae is the kind of part that should make all other creators of one-dimensional, helmet-haired, Southern nutbags ashamed. (You know who you are.)
Even with those over-the-top characters and situations, this play is unforgettable drama that mines laughs and horror from a story that feels like it could just as easily transpire in the house down the street. With August: Osage County, Tracy Letts—who had previously drawn trashy, despicable characters in the outlandish Killer Joe, and then summoned up a number of horrifying thoughts in Bug—has secured his place in the pantheon of American drama.
This play is the next major point on the lineage of great American domestic dramas that runs from Eugene O'Neill to Edward Albee to Sam Shepard.
You can hear an audio version of this review in the Jan. 13 episode of This Week in the Arts.