Families are dysfunctional. American playwright Tracy Letts proves it in his 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning play, August: Osage County. In this three-hour-and-a-half hour, three-act play, long-kept secrets are revealed on one hot summer night in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. As a complicated family reunites when its patriarch disappears, suddenly 13 characters are placed in the fire, leaving none unscathed.
Directed by Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Artistic Director, William Hayes, his vision captures the true essence of the original play. This play had its Broadway debut at the Imperial Theater in December of 2007. In 2013, the American tragicomedy was released as a film directed by John Wells. It featured Meryl Streep, Sam Sheppard, and Julia Roberts.
Like a well-harvested onion, there are several layers to peel off in this play. Everything from generations of bad parenting to adultery, sibling rivalry, drug addiction, alcoholism, and unchecked issues needed to be addressed long ago. No other scene can attest to this more than the dinner table.
We recognize it; in fact, we’ve memorized it in our own lives! We’ve all been at that family dinner table when all hell broke loose. Possibly not as tragic and humorous as August: Osage County, but a version of it, realizing how messed up we are all collectively.
In Weston’s estate, the family patriarch, Beverly Weston [Dennis Creaghan] has gone missing for three days. Before he supposedly left fishing, he interviews and hires a Native American young woman, Johna [Ryffin Phoenix] to be a living-in caretaker of his house, including his sick wife Violet [Sara Morsey].
During the young woman’s job interview, Beverly explains the job requirements. He also gives her a bit of insight into him and Violet: he drinks and Violet takes pills. “Maybe I drink because she takes pills or maybe she takes pills because I drink,” he says. He and his wife have three daughters, he tells her, and maybe they left home to be as far away from them as they could. Does she still want the job? He asked. Yes, she needs the job, she said.
Another layer is exposed as Johnna provides a glimpse into her character and the hardships Native Americans endured as they were colonized by Europeans decades ago and the ripple effects it caused.
Beverly’s long dialogue sets up the first act, providing the audience with an understanding of his deep sadness and overall frustration with the decline of the American family since the 1950s. Through the play’s brilliant interchanges, the playwright uses Beverly as a mouthpiece to blame Hollywood’s bubblegum adaptation of the perfect family, which churched television family sitcoms and family films that portrayed it like the idyllic society nucleus that it never was.
It is now 2007, and Beverly feels that the decline has really reached a head. And the basis of all that is what we recognize as the major theme in this black comedy drama: with greed comes corruption, and that leads to the next thing: moral act.
The second act brings us to a new understanding of the family, of Violet, the mother, and her eldest daughter, Barbara [Kathy McCafferty], who fears she’s becoming her mother, and the only way to change that is by fixing her mother, and taking responsibility for herself and her marriage to Bill [Bruce Linser]. This brings us to the moral of the story: nothing can move forward if you can’t fix other people’s problems. But as we all know, that rarely works, especially when dealing with family members.
By the first two acts, the audience knows this play is a piece of art. And much like any other masterpiece that delves into people’s psyche so intently and radiantly, it mirrors real life. So much that you wonder, could it be that in the writing of this play . . . was Letts trying to figure out his own family? He was, after all, ten years old when his grandfather committed suicide. Reportedly, Letts was 40-something when he began writing this play and in his early 70s when he finished it. He put all his feelings about his family and extended family in there, and it shows, especially in the third act of the play.
In act three, there’s an excellent scene at the dinner table when Violet points fingers at everyone. This brings the heat up to an already tragic and awful situation. Her words are repulsive. She is mean, nasty, and hilarious! But the family can’t see past her fury and nastiness as their minds are occupied by other stuff, mainly their own internal dramas: a middle-aged woman dating her own cousin, who ultimately turns out to be something else. An aunt, Mattie Fae Aiken [Laura Turnbull], has a secret that’s no secret to her sister Violet, but a hush-hush situation that turns sisters against each other, and ultimately leaves a mother abandoned and another on the threshold of divorce.
While the play does not have what most would call a happy ending, the content of its drama is so darn wrong and real. You can’t help but identify it with yourself, or your family history. Perhaps that’s why plays like this are so popular on stage.
Tracy Lett’s August: Osage County is a remarkable American play and a true playwriting art piece: a bracing portrait of everyone’s dysfunctional family, in its best or worst moment. It is now playing until April 16, 2023. The show runs three-and-a-half hours with two 10-minute intermissions. To purchase your tickets, head over to palmbeachdramaworks.org or call their box office at (561) 514-4042 ext. 2. Palm Beach Dramaworks is located at 201 Clematis Street.