AISLE SAY New York
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY
by Tracy Letts
Directed by Anna D. Shapiro
Imperial Theatre / 249 West 45th Street
Reviewed by David Spencer
It isnÕt entirely accurate to say, as some have, that Tracy LettsÕ August: Osage County is a kind of latter-day Long DayÕs Journey Into Night, because while it has the epic stretch of OÕNeillÕs reminiscence, it has more characters and moves much faster; indeed, in his family mode, Letts evidences as much of Horton (Dividing the Estate) FooteÕs even-handed compassion for even the most abrasive or questionable relative, and as much of Edward (WhoÕs Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) AlbeeÕs penchant for scathing wit and bitter revelation. In other words, though there are certain textures at play that carry the resonance of notable family dramas past, August: Osage County is its own thing.
The play begins with the paternal head of the family hiring a new aide (Kimberly Guererro) to himself and his pill-popping wife. As played by Dennis Letts (the playwrightÕs father), Berverly is a gruffly wry and altogether lovable character. All the more upsetting, then, that our intro to him is also our farewell—because it is his disappearance, a few days later, that is the cause for the family gathering to follow, and waiting out the news as to whether Beverly is on a drunk bender or dead.
Whatever the verdict, both the wait and the aftermath leave the family in the firing line of said matriarch Violet (Deana Dunagan), vicious and manipulative but, like any true family gorgon, she isnÕt a total monster; sheÕs loving enough to inspire enough loyalty to counteract the ambivalence. And thereÕs a lot of it, as she has three daughters and a large extended family. I wonÕt spell out all the interrelationships here—thereÕs as much fun in discovering the family dynamics as there is in the revelations that bubble to the surface when all the paths and agendas cross—but suffice it to say that of the daughters it is Barbara (Amy Morton), strong, witty and possessed of her own bitterness, who is the flawed hope for a sense of equilibrium.
And the family will need a lot of it. For no one in it isnÕt a pathological case history waiting to be documented. And all are memorably played by Ian Barford, Francis Guinan, Brian Kerwin, Madeleine Martin, Mariann Mayberry, Sally Murphy, Jeff Perry, and Rondi Reed—with Troy West as the local sheriff.
On a two-level set that, with understated ingeniousness, displays every relevant room in the rambling house in what seems like proper aspect and relative positioning (excellently designed by Todd Rosenthal), director Anna D. Shapiro has sensitively guided her astonishing ensemble of actors, with only one glitch, ironically not one of verisimilitude, but one borne of verisimilitude. ThereÕs an extended dinner sequence off to audience left, and in positioning the family around a circular table, she effectively cuts off the faces of most of her ensemble: theyÕre either facing away from us or blocking those facing them. IÕve never been to the Steppenwolf stage in Chicago, whence this production originated, but I wonder if thatÕs not the remnant of a different physical configuration. In any event, IÕll be damned if I can tell you how, but I think, even with Ms. ShapiroÕs desire to Ōkeep it realĶ there has to have been a better solution. And that said, itÕs a negligible objection, considering all the rest. One notices, I guess, because the rest is so splendid.
ThereÕs been a lot of buzz about August: Osage County, citing it as an instant American classic. Time will tell, I suppose, but itÕs pretty certain that after its Broadway run—which should be long (the PR says limited engagement, but I bet that will ultimately refer only to the original cast)—and its road tour—which is inevitable—the stock and amateur action is going to be fierce. If classic means itÕll get done all the time because actors and directors and producers will clamor to have at it, then classic it shall be. Not that you should wait aroundÉ