During my junior year of my theater degree at Illinois State University, I remember a heated discussion from my Theater History class, taught by the great Kathleen McClennan, about why people go to the theater. Why do we go? What's the fascination with watching people on stage? Is it purely for entertainment or is it for some other reason? I don't remember everything that was said, but I think gist of the outcome was that we go to the theater to learn what it means to be human. To have the windows of our understanding pushed open by observing other humans enact the most interesting, baffling, intimate moments of a life just as ordinary as our own. No surprise then that playwrights from Aeschylus to Pinter have turned to the family unit as a motor for drama; a natural place to explore human hopes and failures, to observe different generations not only at odds with each other but at odds with the foibles of time. How was your family's Christmas gathering? Imagine the fun with King Lear and the girls, or what was said around the dinner table at the House of Atreus, or what happened after one too many eggnogs at Big Daddy's. Chilling.
Tolstoy tells us that "all happy families are alike; but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I'd be willing to bet that no unhappy family is as unhappy or in as many ways as the House of Weston, in Tracy Letts' new drama "August: Osage County" now on stage at the National Theatre. A fraught drama about an Oklahoma family in near-apocalyptic meltdown, Letts' play is easily one of the most exciting American dramas I have seen in a long time. Ferociously funny and achingly sad, this tragicomedy (yes, I did actually use that word), somehow finds fresh material in the seemingly threadbare subject of the dysfunctional American family. With echoes of other classic dramas about the strangling grip of blood ties such as O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and Sam Shepard's "Buried Child", "August" (coming in at a running time of three-and-a-half hours) is one of those plays that teaches volumes about the human condition, keeping you hooked with shocks, surprises, and delights, yet with a moving, heartsick core.
Originally staged in the summer of 2007 at Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago, the production has been imported virtually wholesale from there, after its successful, Tony-Award-winning Broadway run. As an alumnus of the ISU theater department, which has enjoyed a long and fruitful association with Steppenwolf, I was excited to see the play not only because of its plaudits or because of that association, but because it provided London audiences to see actors unknown on this side of the Atlantic displaying that guts-out, raw-boned acting Steppenwolf is known for, and for which I (as both a theater-goer and former actor myself) was terribly homesick. Terrific performances from an ensemble cast that includes Amy Morton, Jeff Perry, Mariann Mayberry, Rondi Reed, Sally Murphy, and most importantly Deanna Dunagan, take the play by storm, with harsh humor, ferocious passion and heartbreaking sensitivity.
Dunagan plays Violet Weston, the evil mother to end all evil mothers, a sharp-tongued matriarch of a family from Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Early in the play her husband, a poet and professor, disappears, never to be heard from again. The Weston daughters are called home, husbands and boyfriends in tow, to comfort Mother in her time of need and to get to the bottom of Dad's disappearance: mousy Ivy (Murphy), who lives nearby and resents the responsibility she's had to take for watching over her parents' twilight years; flaky Karen (Mayberry), who flies in later from Miami with an oily businessman fiancé at her elbow (Gary Cole, perhaps best known on these shores as Vice President Bob Russell in later series of the West Wing), and full of new-age platitudes about having got her shit together and being open to the possibilities of the universe; and strong, strident, forceful Barbara (Morton), well-armored in savage humor and towing her recently estranged professor husband and pot-smoking teenage daughter.
However, Violet, surrounded as she is by family (which also includes sister Mattie Fae--hilariously played by Rondi Reed--her henpecked husband and slacker son), does not seem in need of support. Yes, she's got cancer of the mouth, yes, she's seriously addicted to all varieties of heavy painkillers, but she's also in possession of a Rottweiler's spirit of aggression and a sixth sense of finding and exploiting the sore spots in everyone around her. A child of poverty, neglect and abuse, Violet has a will to endure tied up with the desire to fight and a need to wound, and so, needlessly and pointlessly, Violet sets out to flog everyone around her, until at last, she is the only one left standing. She is so fearsome and her tongue so wicked, by the second act I began to find myself cowering in my seat, hoping that her snake eyes wouldn't settle on me next, fully prepared to launch a volley into row L.
As Jules and I sat in the theater yesterday, our first real "date" since Isabelle was born, enjoying three and a half absolutely delightful hours of powerful play-making, I wondered what lessons "August" had to teach about the human condition. And the answer, mundane as it may be, is that no matter how frustrating, puzzling, wonderful, grotesque, charming, baffling, adorable and wacky my own family might be (and as a new mother myself, this thought had particular resonance), there is always somebody out there who has got it much, much worse.