A review of Tracy Letts’ play “August: Osage County”

Review of August: Osage County by Rhone Fraser

This review is meant to be read by those who have already seen this play. –RF.

Tracy Letts says that he hopes his play August: Osage County “speaks to people about their families, about navigating the rocky water of family life.” Letts has definitely provided a blueprint for doing so through thirteen characters in this play. In this play, he challenges the virtues of the American nuclear family, something that other writers have done in their popular works: novelist Toni Morrison in her first novel The Bluest Eye and screenwriter Alan Ball in his first feature film American Beauty. He frames this play in ways that provide important clues about how to navigate the rocky water of family life. It takes place in a large country home outside Pawhuska, Oklahoma in August of 2007. It opens with the patriarch of the family, Beverly Weston (John Cullum), telling his hired help, Johnna Monevata, her responsibilities for running the house. Here the audience is introduced to Violet Weston (Phylicia Rashad), a prescription drug-addicted wife who according to Beverly has “struck a bargain” with him. Beverly tells Johnna the effect of his resigning to alcohol and his wife to pills: “these facts have over time made burdensome the maintenance of traditional American routine: paying of bills, purchase of goods, cleaning of clothes or carpets or crappers” (11). Letts present Violet and Beverly as a married couple who would rather anaesthetize themselves in prescription drugs and alcohol than deal with the reality of their marriage, which includes the monotony of these traditional routines and some damaging family secrets revealed later. Beverly depends on Johnna to take care of the house while he plans to leave. For good. This first scene is the first and last time we see Beverly in this play. Letts brings into question the cost at which the supposed comfort a marriage can bring to an already dysfunctional situation that was produced as a result of the genocide of a particular group. His character Johnna, is Native American, and when Bryan Appleyard of the Sunday Times (of London in their December 14, 2008 article “Tracy Letts on August: Osage County”) asks what she is doing in this play, Letts replies: “She is watching, waiting. I believe in collective guilt, and Oklahoma is a more focused example of what country is founded on—manifest destiny and all that…But we still have Indian reservations and, growing up in Oklahoma, I grew up with Indians…Anybody who lives in that state can look around and say, this is the result of genocide committed long ago; and if you can see that in one states, you can see it in the whole country. There’s not only oil in that land, there’s blood. I think there’s a kind of karmic price to pay for that.” Letts placement of Johnna in the beginning and ending scenes of this play shows his understanding of how Europeans applied a uniquely possessive ownership of land that, to Native Americans, belonged to everyone. Letts shows ultimately, in the relinquishing of control from a European (Beverly) to a Native American (Johnna) and the finalization of such control in the last scene of the play where Johnna tells an anaesthetized Violet who seeks refuge in her lap: “this is the way the world ends.” The world Johnna is referring to here is obviously that of American control. Letts tells Appleyard that the actress playing Johnna, Kimberly Guerrero, told him a story that Native Americans were there before the white people, and that they were going to be polite and help them and nurse them and do what they had to do. But they would still be here when the white people had gone. Letts’ plays shows us exactly this: the transient yet dynamic glimpse of white people on land they named Oklahoma. In August: Osage County, we get this glimpse of European control, framed by Johnna, made very dramatic by family issues and individual addictions. No character’s line exemplifies this transience more than Barbara’s, one of Beverly and Violet’s three daughters who tells Johnna: “This country, this experiment, America, this hubris: what a lament, if no one saw it go. Here today, gone tomorrow. (Beat) Dissipation is actually much worse than cataclysm” (124). Letts shows in this play the dissipation of an American family due to its strong need for the concept of blame and the even stronger need to assign it to a single person. He frames this family as a sort of quintessential midwestern American family, suffocated by their own maintenance of patriotism and family. They are supposedly patriotic because they followed without question Dick Cheney’s supposedly fool proof method for guarding against terrorist attack: duct tape. Charlie asks Ivy when they started taping the shades. The taped shades of the Weston home are a representation of secrets within the family that, like the tape, keeps the family in the dark, ignorant of the nurturing sunlight that exposure and honesty can provide.
Each member of the immediate Weston family verbally abuses another because of the need to cast blame away from themselves, to cope with their own shame, or to defend against others who do the former two. The family comes together in the Weston home after the disappearance of Beverly, the family patriarch. We are first introduced to the eldest Weston daughter Barbara as she is blaming her husband Bill (Frank Wood) for their daughter Jean’s (Anne Berkowitz) smoking habit. Barbara is dealing with a husband who has left her for a younger woman and the guilt for leaving her mother and father that her mother and sister remind her of. She deflects these feelings with a very strong exterior and a profane vocabulary. The sympathetic portrayal of Barbara by Amy Morton is in my mind the most memorable of all performances, because she of all the characters is trying hardest to hold this family together: Barbara is the moral compass of the family. She is the only one to ask perhaps the most difficult questions that break other characters out of the mold of the “narcissistic generation” her husband says we’re part of. She challenges Violet’s material preoccupations with the safety deposit box; she questions Jean’s respect for her grandfather; she is the only one willing to identify her father’s drowned body; she is the first to challenge the authority of Violet; she challenges Ivy’s morbid proclamations that their father may have never liked any of his children; she is the only daughter willing to take responsibility after all other family leaves. Finally, she is also most sensitive to “the karmic price” that Letts suggests that Midwest America is paying for. As they enter the household, Barbara asks her husband: “Who was the a—hole who saw this flat hot nothing and planted his flag? I mean, we f—ed the Indians for this? (20). While Barbara handles blame, the thrust behind her doing so is intended usually for some greater moral purpose, best seen in her line lamenting her father’s apparent suicide: “I believe he had a responsibility to something greater than himself; we all do”(105). This moral compass was not true for the younger two Weston daughters. In the first scene of Act Three, Ivy tells the youngest daughter Karen and Barbara about her decision to leave her ailing mother: “nobody gets to point a finger at me. Nobody” (105). Ivy responds to charges about her lack of concern for her parents by vehemently deflecting blame. She is so concerned about expressing her love for Little Charles that she sees Violet’s revelation of Bev’s paternity of her lover, Little Charles, only as a plan to “change her story”(134). The youngest sister Karen also acts to shift blame away from herself when her fiancé Steve (Brian Kerwin), like a military contractor just out for a good time, is accused of making a pass at Jean. Karen tells Barbara: “You better find out from Jean just exactly what went in there before you start pointing fingers, that’s all I’m saying. ‘Cause I doubt Jean’s exactly blameless in all this. And I’m not blaming her. Just because I said she’s not blameless, that that doesn’t mean I’ve blamed her. I’m saying she might share in the responsibility.” Where Ivy and Karen seem preoccupied with blame and telling their side of the story, Barbara as the oldest seems more interested in correcting a problem than assigning blame. She thinks this way, apparently to a fault according to Karen who says that things are not cut and dried, black white, good and bad; that things are more often than not “somewhere in the middle. Where everything lives, where all the rest of us live, everyone but you” (121). Here Karen recognizes Barbara’s higher moral standard that does not compromise in trying to correct an issue. Barbara’s own possibility of romance is redeemed through her relationship with sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Troy West) who helps her remember her own attractiveness. Of all individual characters, it is through the character of Barbara that Letts shows best how to navigate the rocky water of family life.
Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae (Susanne Marley) does not seem to depend on pills as much as Violet, however she copes with the pain of a long-kept secret through the verbal abuse of her husband and particularly her son, Little Charles (Michael Milligan). She and her husband Charlie (Guy Boyd) follow the opening scene, which takes place five days after Beverly’s permanent departure. Mattie Fae warns Charlie that if he leaves without apparent notice the way Beverly did, his books would be burned, if he had any. Mattie Fae inflicts special abuse on Little Charles whose physical likeness plausibly reminds her of the shame she may feel for her affair with Beverly, whose fatherhood of Little Charles is the deep dark secret of this play. She tells Little Charles: “I suppose you wouldn’t like TV then, not if watching it constituted getting a job” (111). Charlie verbally threatens to kick her out of the car on the way back if she continues berating Little Charles. She reveals to Barbara: “I don’t know why Little Charles is such a disappointment to me” (114). Mattie Fae is Violet’s support, and between the two of them is the family’s deepest secret whose concealment maintains the appearance of a stable American family. The direction of the play is largely dictated by the decisions of the matriarch Violet Weston. She waits five days before alerting influential family members like Barbara of Beverly’s absence. She was more concerned about getting money from the safety deposit box than she was about trying to prevent her husband’s death. She curses Beverly even after his death: “You want to show who’s stronger, Bev? Nobody is stronger than me, goddamn it. When nothing is left, when everything is gone and disappeared, I’ll be here. Who’s stronger now, you son-of-a-b—ch?!” (137). It is this line that makes her crawling on all fours, seeking Johnna, so dramatic at the end of this play. In this play, through the Weston family, Tracy Letts has provided a survey of American history on Native American land, beginning with the patriarch, brought down by his burden of paternity, ending by the matriarch who is brought down by the pain of her own codependency which she refuses to acknowledge. At the beginning at the end of this play, like in Guerrero’s story is the Native American waiting to reclaim the land they intended for everyone and not one person. In this play, the concept of blame or personal responsibility is forsaken or unwanted the current way that the land on which the Weston household rests is. Its something most people (not Barbara) are trying to get rid of, instead of handle responsibly. Learning how to handle it responsibly is one way to navigate the rocky water of family life. One can read this play as a critique against the pharmaceutical industry, however on a deeper level it is a play about how individual choices can either help or hinder one’s navigation of family life. What makes one decide to douse their concerns in pill-popping seems to be a more important question that Letts is asking.
This is the play from a literary perspective. From a performance perspective, the most emotionally moving moments happened during the dinner scene when Violet berates her daughters for not making the most of the things that her generation never had. This is yet another example of Violet shifting blame from herself for the problems her daughters face. Rashad’s Violet is definitely a detached matriarch, one that is preoccupied with not having to think deeply as long as there’s a pill to pop somewhere. The fight scene where Barbara is trying to take Violet’s pills away from her needs much more work. There is definitely commotion by the cast at this part, but no real physical confrontation between Barbara and Violet that would drive such a commotion. Overall, the staging of this play that will soon tour will hopefully cause more people like Barbara not only to say, “that madhouse is my family,” but this play should hopefully cause people to ask: how can I make this madhouse less mad? Letts seems to suggest that an answer may be to either confront whatever shame affects our behavior, or to accept responsibility without fear or shame. –RF.

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Author: Dr. Rhone Fraser

Dr. Rhone Fraser is an independent writer and journalist born of Jamaican immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, on October 12, 1979. He moved to Florida in 1989 and graduated from Zephyrhills (FL) High School in 1997. He graduated from Yale University in 2001, after which time he taught in the public school systems in New Haven (CT) and the Bronx for three years. He then began writing independently and finished a documentary play on the life of Fannie Lou Hamer entitled, "Living Sacrifice," for which he still seeks publication. He earned his Ph.D. in African American Studies from Temple as of August 31, 2012. His dissertation was a literary and historical analysis of Pauline Hopkins, A. Philip Randolph and Paul Robeson. He also is a freelance editor and radio producer, and is currently producer of WPEB's Freedom Readers on 88.1 FM in Philadelphia.