There aren’t many playwrights who can speak to us in an exceptionally accessible, relevant and funny voice while simultaneously, almost insidiously, delivering a dark, querulous and far from facile study of the human condition. Tracy Letts, author of August: Osage County, was, without doubt, born to do it. For even as he delivers his full-bore portrait of the ever-so-recognizable Weston family in flagrant, slightly madcap, disintegration, his characters quote from T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men, a poem of palpable desolation, which on cold reading can be as elusive as it is evocative. And it is Letts’s acutely observed characters and scenes, utterly fluent in the terms of modern Americana, along with his refusal to leave it at just that, which has made August such a critical cross-over: it’s so easy to watch and yet has so much reach.
The play begins with the family patriarch Beverly Weston, played deftly and convincingly by Jon DeVries, interviewing a young woman he will hire to keep the house. He is drunk and pontificating and like the patient but confused Johnna (sweetly effective DeLanna Studi), we try to make sense of this rambling monologue that, among other things, references Beverly’s long and troubled marriage to Violet. As we and Johnna ultimately learn, Beverly’s words and his subsequent actions – he disappears – evolve much greater meaning long after he has left the stage.
The play then kicks off in earnest as we join Violet in the throes of near-panic at Beverly’s unexplained absence. As the extended family begins to converge in support of their worried mother, and events unfold, we are thrust into a maelstrom of old wounds and unresolved angers. At the center of it stands the unrepentant, pill-addled Violet, played by Estelle Parsons in powerful homage to those legions of tough old broads who shuffle the aisles in late-night supermarkets, filling their carts with mixer, cigarettes and boxes of Lean Cuisine. Of course, Violet isn’t anywhere near that simplistic — but then Letts really asks us, what old lady is?
Parsons is fascinating to watch. In a stunningly layered portrayal she gives us the cynicism, self-pity, ruthlessness and vulnerability of the damaged psyche still able and willing to stir the pots of those who love her. Is she trying to help, hurt, or is she beyond caring? Like most confirmed cynics, she has a piquant one-liner for everything and Parsons delivers hers with the kind of impeccable timing that doubles the laughs. And despite all the dysfunction, Violet is hilarious, and her long-suffering family make for perfect foils.
The butt of much of Violet’s aggro is oldest daughter Barbara, played with great intensity by Shannon Cochran, who captures acutely the torment of returning to such a toxic nest just as her own life is beginning to unravel. Cochran has a huge challenge here – she is the one character who must go through some of the most obvious changes and, despite the tight and otherwise in-synch direction of Anna D. Shapiro, neither quite carries Barbara to the point of convincing revelation.
As Barbara’s husband Bill, Jeff Still, rueful and interestingly low-key gives us a man wreaking almost as much havoc on his wife – albeit in his quiet civilized way – as Violet. Though Letts does not make Bill wordy, Still nonetheless keenly generates that god-awful aura of the lover who is done loving. This, along with Violet’s ruthless pronouncements on the realities for women as they age, juxtaposed as they are to the relationships unfolding around her, bring some of the most deeply poignant and potent moments of the play. And how very interesting that it is a man holding the pen.
Two other powerful performances come from Libby George as Violet’s sister Mattie and Paul Vincent O’Connor as Charlie, her husband. Beautifully executed characters, each of this long-married couple bring much humor and dimension to August. As Violet’s other daughters, Ivy and Karen, Angelica Torn and Amy Warren are memorable long after the curtain falls.
If anything can really be said in criticism of August it’s that the penultimate scenes lose some of the taut, credible energy that otherwise drives the play. Violet is not seen for some time, described as being possibly brain-damaged, but where is she? Our focus is placed on Barbara as she occupies Violet’s abandoned space, but Cochran seems ill-at-ease with Barbara’s descent and it is hard to believe that this powerful woman, even as highly strung as she is, could lose her grip. Still, the play instantly picks up when Violet returns to engage one last time with Barbara. The laughs are finally over as Violet lets go of whatever pretences she has left, and even as Letts takes us back to The Hollow Men, one cannot help but be reminded of another T.S. Eliot, his play The Cocktail Party, in which a character asks: ”What is hell? Hell is oneself. Hell is alone, the other figures in it Merely projections. There is nothing to escape from And nothing to escape to. One is always alone.”
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