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August: Osage County

January 10, 2014
August: Osage County

When Tracy Letts sat down to write August: Osage County for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, he spoke to all the actors and found that the one common thread in their lives was dysfunctional family drama in small towns in the midwest and great plains. And so he wrote a great, sprawling, ensemble piece with something in it for every would-be voyeur of unhappy families. They may be all different, but this one is like all of them.

Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) lives in a big house outside Pawhuska, Oklahoma, the seat of Osage County. He hires Johnna (Misty Upham), a Native American woman, as live-in cook and caregiver for his vituperative, casually-racist, and cancer-stricken wife, Violet (Meryl Streep). And then, a few weeks later, he disappears.

The family is called in to support Vi. Her sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), and brother-in-law, Charles (Chris Cooper), arrive first. They’re followed soon after by two of her daughters: Barbara (Julia Roberts) brings her husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor), and daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin); Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is alone as usual. And then Bev himself turns up, or at least his body does.

It’s after the funeral that the action really picks up. Karen (Juliette Lewis) brings her fiancé, Steve (Dermot Mulroney) in from Florida. Mattie Fae and Charle’s son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), oversleeps and shows up late, just before the mid-afternoon dinner where Vi holds court, reaching through her drug-addled haze to twist every knife she sees, and there are plenty.

Vi and Mattie Fae are the product of hard times for Oklahoma. Maybe not quite the depression, but they grew up fighting to survive. Mattie Fae is pleasant enough on the whole, reserving her criticism for her son. Vi, on the other hand, is simply mean and spiteful to everyone, excusing herself from blame since she’s “only truth-telling”. She brings up Barbara’s separation from Bill, tells Karen that she’s starting to prove Vi’s point that women only grow less attractive as they get older, and harps on Ivy as an old maid.

The thing is, most of what she says is, admittedly, the truth. Vi just sets fires by bringing everyone’s pain up to the surface, then sits back to revel in the flames. Tragedy after tragedy, great and small, unwind in front of her — and of us. She lives to point out all the sicknesses in a tree where she herself is the gnarled trunk. The poison passes down, generation to generation. Outsiders become entangled in the branches, either to flee the ugliness like Bill does and Charles feels unable to, or to find a home for their own strain of poison like Steve does.

This is not the same bitter, angry Letts who wrote Killer Joe, but he still has his taste for excess. There are half a dozen major problems going on in the Weston family, any one of which would be plenty of meat for a drama, not to mention all the smaller skirmishes. After each bomb goes off there’s barely time to examine the wreckage before the next one blows up.

It does make for some impressive fireworks and plenty of great, big emotions for a talented ensemble cast led by Streep and featuring Julia Roberts’ best performance ever. And yet, after a while, it all starts to feel thin. Piling one tragedy on top of another can be impressive, but it makes it hard to get any insight into the people behind them. We become, in effect, voyeurs, no better than Vi herself.

When all the dust settles and the house of Weston is left in smoking ruins, it’s hard to see anything has been learned beyond “get out while you still can.” But man, what a show it is while it lasts.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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