Theater Review: August: Osage County

January 30, (The Blue & White online)

In our post-post-modern world of narrative tricks and linguistic games, it is easy to forget that a meticulously constructed, intelligently written, and vigorously performed family drama can still pack a powerful emotional and intellectual punch.  If you need proof, look no further than Tracey Letts’ spectacular new play August: Osage County.  Not since my first encounters with Williams and Albee have I been so wildly entertained by viciousness, and not since Long Day’s Journey Into Night have I been so completely invested in the lives of a family on stage.  At this point, August has been so showered with praise that to write another rave review seems redundant, and yet it is difficult not to get excited over a play so clearly poised to become a classic for our generation of theatergoers.

August opens quietly, with a marvelous monologue delivered with understated dignity by the play’s patriarch, Beverly Weston.  The act that follows introduces with incredible wit and economy most of the Weston clan, gathered at in their rural Oklahoma home after the sudden disappearance of Beverly Weston.  The first Act flies by as the Westons reveal to us, though not one another, their secrets, lies, and past pains.

In Act II, Letts takes perhaps the most conventional setting in American drama—the dinner table—and transforms it into a whirlwind of breathtaking cruelty.  You could hear the audience wincing, cringing, and recoiling with each passing attack.  This familial battle ground is realized in the mayhem that brings the nauseating humor and ecstatic fury of the second act to its climactic close.

In stark contrast to the brutality of Act II, Act III unfolds almost languorously as the Weston family confronts the aftermath of its dinner from hell.  My only complaint might be that the play seems to reach its final cadence several times before its close.  Then again, after three astonishing hours, I can’t help but feel that Letts and the Westons are entitled to a long-winded farewell.

In August: Osage County, Letts has created a play for the canon, a play as vast and as stifling as the land it describes, a play about a family and a world approaching the brink of destruction and finally, breathlessly, falling in.  In the middle of Act II, Violet Weston shrieks, “It’s a damn fine day for telling the truth!”  When in the play’s final moment Beverly’s opening allusion to Eliot is brought full circle in the chilling, sung refrain “this is the way the world ends,” our joy and our terror is in knowing just how right Violet is.

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