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Review – 'August: Osage County' at the Winspear

by Jerome Weeks 14 Jan 2010 6:23 AM

Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play finally comes to Texas, and Estelle Parsons gets to play the meanest-mouthed matriarch since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The drug-fueled, obscenity-strewn decline of an Oklahoma family eventually goes over the top, but the more-than-three-hour trip there is hilarious and harrowing.


phpDyGt5pPMTodd Rosenthal’s remarkable, three-story, dollhouse set

  • John Garcia’s review for Pegasus News
  • KERA radio review:
  • Expanded online review:

Touring productions of stage dramas are rare these days – especially one with a sizable cast of 13 actors. They just don’t make enough money. What’s more, August: Osage County is the first play to be presented at the Winspear Opera House (as part of AT&T’s Lexus Broadway Series). Which means it’s a risk, given the scale of the new opera house. It has 2,200 seats to fill, 500 more than the Majestic Theatre.

Even so, Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-and-Tony-Award-winning drama has the kind of family battles and outsize emotions that suit a grand hall. August: Osage County is not small, not in its ambitions or range. It’s like an opera — with obscenities.

In the play, the patriarch of an Oklahoma family (the drolly autumnal Jon DeVries) is a drunken, once-celebrated poet, prone to quoting John Berryman on sobriety’s lack of appeal. But he disappears, and three generations of the Westons gather in the family’s Victorian home outside Tulsa. They’re supposedly helping grandma Violet get through this crisis, but mostly they pop pills, smoke pot, drink like fish, damage a couple marriages and thoroughly, hilariously savage each other.

The funny, frightening embodiment of all this bitter decay is Violet. Violet is in pain from cancer and addled by pills, and she sprays verbal poison at everyone. Of course, she proclaims her abuse a form of truth-telling. In this scene from the Broadway production, Violet’s middle-aged daughter Barbara tries to stop her from calling the new housekeeper an Indian.

BARBARA: Ah, they’re called Native Americans now, Mama.

VIOLET: Who called them that? Who makes that decision?

BARBARA: It’s what they like to be called.

VIOLET: They’re not any more native than me.

BARBARA: In fact, they are. [Laughter.]

VIOLET: What’s wrong with Indian?

BARBARA: Why is it so hard to just call people what they want?

VIOLET: Why don’t we just call the dinosaurs Native Americans while we’re at it?

And that’s Violet when she’s lighthearted.

Shannon Cochran, Jeff Stills and Estelle Parsons

August: Osage County is in the American tradition of epic family dramas — from O’Neill through Williams to Albee — with a dose of contemporary TV when it comes to domestic pathology. It has a thick, twisted texture, demonstrating how alcoholism, denial, abuse, even pedophilia and incest work their way through generation after generation. As a result, much of the talk about August: Osage County has been about dysfunctional families, a direction Letts himself points to with his characters’ overt discussions of the Greatest Generation and America in decline, discussions that bookend the play at start and finish.

Yet the pounding heart of August: Osage County is actually female rage — rage and fear – and not just Violet’s. At different times, her three adult daughters and her one granddaughter all burst with resentment at husbands and fathers, at each other, at life itself. They feel isolated, betrayed, frustrated, they’re bitter even over the unfairness of growing old and unattractive. In fact, there’s only one moment in the drama when the sole husband who is not morally compromised stands up. He demands some simple courtesy for his son, and the opening-night audience practically cheered.

The response was partly relief — at last! — and it’s actually a sign of Tracy Letts’ dramatic skill. August: Osage County is more than three hours long, and towards the end, it does feel contrived as we get even more melodramatic revelations and family complications. But Letts knows when to hit the safety valve — and keep us entertained. In terms of tone and impact, his play can pivot – in a single scene — from Long Day’s Journey Into Night to Greater Tuna. [Interestingly enough, both Tracy Letts and Joe Sears, co-creator of Greater Tuna, grew up in small-town Oklahoma and got their starts in Texas theater – Letts in Dallas, Sears in San Antonio.]

That sounds like an impossible combination of bleak tragedy and flat-Plains humor. But directed by Anna Shapiro, this touring version of the Steppenwolf Theatre production is remarkably strong, deep in its cast. Oscar-winner Estelle Parsons is amazing at 82 years old, playing Violet with all the dry-eyed, ramrod force she does. Violet Weston doesn’t really change, though, she just sinks deeper into her own personal hell. So the drama’s jagged emotional path is really left to the truly impressive Shannon Cochran as Barbara. [Cochran is best known to horror film buffs for The Ring.] Barbara is the one who must contend with everything: out-of-control mother, unfaithful husband, pothead daughter. She’s the one who finally understands herself and her family clearly, as painful as that turns out to be. And if August: Osage County — this raucous, foul-mouthed marathon of a tragicomedy – has anything remotely like a heroine, she’s it.

  • Jennifer

    Saw this on Tuesday night…excellent!

  • Nice review. Two comments: One. we saw Saturday matinee. We were disappointed in our seats in the Dress Circle. Sixty bucks a seat, and we couldn’t hear, particularly the first two acts. It’s really a pretty far ways away for a play.

    Second, in terms of the play, seems like it had went on a tad long. Both My wife and I would have ended the play with the character Barbara and Johnna sitting and talking as a perfect bookend to the beginning scene.

    Very nice production, funny and tragic.

    If I go to the Winspear again, I’ll spring for more expensive tickets.