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There but for the grace of god we go: Thoughts on ‘August: Osage County’

By Jenny Hubbard

Special to the Salisbury Post

Last month, my husband and I went to New York to see “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” the American tragedy by Eugene O’Neill, starring Jessica Lange, who earned a Tony for her performance. That we were able to witness a master class in acting was icing on the cake. I’d never read or seen the play, but I had a feeling it was the forerunner to the one we were currently rehearsing in Salisbury.

I’m talking about Tracy Letts’ black comedy, “August: Osage County,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama 49 years after Eugene O’Neill won it (posthumously).

Like “Long Day’s Journey,” “August” paints a portrait of a family, a portrait of America. In O’Neill’s play, the fog rolls in from the sea, and darkness overtakes light. In Letts’ play, the house is dark and decrepit, the land surrounding it described as a “flat hot nothing.”

From the get-go, “August” echoes T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men.” (“This is the dead land./This is cactus land.”) Osage County, the largest county in Oklahoma, was once the home of the Osage tribe, and it’s no accident that it’s the young Native American woman, hired to take care of a dying, drug-addled matriarch, who bears witness to the downfall.

The matriarch, Violet Weston, is one of the most harrowing characters ever created for the stage. She can be laugh-out-loud funny and bitingly cruel in the same breath, especially to her three grown daughters who have returned home for the funeral of their father, a washed-up poet who drinks himself into oblivion. (The patriarch in O’Neill’s play is a washed-up actor; the matriarch, a morphine addict.)

There’s Barbara, the oldest and the favorite, whose marriage is falling apart. There’s Ivy, the middle child who never left home. (I play Ivy.) And there’s Karen, the baby, who, at 40, is still looking for a personal flotation device. She’s tried self-help books, group therapy, Scientology, wine, and when we meet her, she’s clinging to a man who’s been married three times.

Before we of St. Thomas Players chose this play as one of our two yearly offerings, we weighed its literary merits against its R-rated language, which we knew would offend some of our most faithful patrons. But you can’t tell a story about the deterioration of our nation without using language that reflects that deterioration. (Think about it: compare the rhetoric of our politicians and celebrities 50 years ago to the rhetoric of our politicians and celebrities now.)

Letts’ four-letter words aren’t gratuitous; not only does he employ them as commentary on our times, but he also employs them to underscore one of his themes: that we can’t escape our nature or our nurture. Claudia Galup, the artistic director of St. Thomas Players, pointed out to me the other day that the only characters who use the f-word are Violet, Barbara and Jean (mother, daughter and granddaughter), a direct lineage, a devolution. Monkey see, monkey do.

As Tolstoy said in the first line of Anna Karenina, “Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So it follows that every dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way. If theatre is heightened reality, then what Letts shows us is dysfunction on steroids: hey, if you think your family is messed up, come take a look at the Westons! (In O’Neill’s play, you watch the Tyrones.) And what makes us laugh out loud is just how frighteningly real and recognizable they are. The fat aunt who specializes in green-bean casserole. The hen-pecked uncle who smokes pot on the sly. The sad sack of a cousin who oversleeps for the funeral.

The play is a lot funnier than the film version, I am happy to report, but in either case, it’s Barbara’s, the prodigal daughter’s, story. Watch how she fights tooth and nail to hold the family together; note how her salvation arrives in the form of self-recognition. Who among us hasn’t been shaken to the core at the thought of becoming just like our parents? We root for Barbara (brilliantly realized by Debbie Hubbard-Pastore) to beat the odds.

One aspect of “August’s” brilliance is that each character, even the sheriff who shows up at the house to deliver bad news, has his or her story to tell within the larger story. I also admire the way that Letts sneaks the profundity into everyday conversation. (He’s not nearly obvious as O’Neill, whose Mary Tyrone says to her husband, after he begs her to forget the past, “How can I? The past is present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too.”) Listen for these lines woven seamlessly into the dialogue:

“Men always say s— like that, as if the past and the future don’t exist.”

“This madhouse is my home.”

“You’re monsters. Picking the bones of the rest of us.”

“It’s not cut and dried, black and white, good and bad. It lives where everything lives: somewhere in the middle.”

“This country, this experiment, this hubris: what a lament, if no one saw it go.”

“August: Osage County,” incubated by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago before it opened on Broadway, is being brought to you by Center for Faith and the Arts, St. Thomas Players, and Lee Street theatre. It runs July 21-24 and 28-30. For tickets, call 704-310-5507 or visit www.leestreet.org.

 

Writer Jenny Hubbard lives in Salisbury.

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