The family that preys together….

Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County’ on tour (1st review)

4 minute read
Parsons: On the attack.
Parsons: On the attack.
The Westons of Tracy Letts's August: Osage County are smart, tart and unafraid to confront one another. Violet, the matriarch, and her three daughters take particular glee in exposing each other's pretenses, foibles and secrets in no-nonsense, spiteful fashion. Violet's sister, Mattie Fae, is another born to the assaultive breed. Peace is never allowed to reign for too long.

The Westons, characters in a comic drama as they are, may seem extreme when taken in the three-hour-plus dose that Letts provides. But when you think about them, you notice they're just people who've let their guard down. They're with family, so their polite, sociable masks have been replaced with their real faces, because no one in their clan will let them get away with falseness.

The matters about which they argue are both important and petty. August begins with the Weston patriarch, Beverly, discussing T.S. Eliot, John Berryman and other poets to a Native American woman he's hired as a housekeeper and caretaker for his wife, Violet. Beverly's theme is Eliot's declaration, made when the poet was in his 30s, that life is long, the opposite of what many plays tells us. Beverly uses Berryman to justify his 50-year marriage to liquor, his means of countering Violet's decade-long use of pills. Beverly's point is the pain of long life needs to be deadened by something.

This might seem cynical until you witness the type of pain his wife, daughters, and sister-in-law are capable of inflicting. The daughters' husbands and boyfriends are equal to this task too, and the one child we see seems to have inherited the family penchant for blunt truth told at the most vulnerable moment.

Hunter and prey

At a time when so many American plays build their plots around political and social issues (while the British explore mankind on a sweeping scale by zeroing in on institutions like education, religion and the state), Letts's free-for-all is a refreshing change of pace. Letts knows family dynamics. He knows how different members use zingers and who is the hunter and who is the prey. August: Osage County dissects the family by letting the Westons reveal themselves, blood dripping from each clever claw.

Although August is set in rural Oklahoma, Letts's characters are not Sam Shepard people. They are well read, well kept, educated and stylish. Most of them are professional. Many work at universities. The actors in this touring company production are careful to reflect the fine-tuning that's been bred into the Westons since their grandparents were poor prairie folk. They're articulate and careful, as many a knowing assassin is.

Subtler than Broadway

The relative ease with which these actors skewer each other contrasts with the original 2007 Broadway production. That cast was intense and in high dudgeon. Everything was done big and loud.

The touring cast is more subdued— calmer and more natural. This group gives all appearances of being a close, knowing family. They are not the oversized monsters their Broadway and London predecessors portrayed.

Rather than sensing that danger lurks at every verbal turn, this production lulls us into thinking that some resolution or rational negotiation of the conflicts could be possible— which makes the characters scarier. The original cast seemed unapproachable to anyone but a Weston. The touring cast lets you see people you might pass on the street. The ordinariness of their façades renders their outbursts all the more powerful.

Parsons attacks

Estelle Parsons, spry and wily at age 82, is a canny, cagy Violet. Even at her most drug-addled, you can tell by her eyes that she's aware of all that's happening around her, waiting to fire her next salvo at the most vulnerable family member in earshot.

Shannon Cochran, as Barbara, sets the tone of calmness. Even when she's angry or agitated, she seems businesslike, as if she knows how to fix all that grieves the Westons.

The best performance comes from the actor playing the family's quietest and most reasonable member: Paul Vincent O'Connor as Charlie Aiken, Violet's brother-in-law. O'Connor's Charlie can be taunting and sharp, but he seems to be the family member most capable of love and order.

On a side note, it's gratifying to see the venerable but neglected Forrest Theatre occupied by this substantial play. This theater, one of the finest in the U.S., has lately been one of Philadelphia's most wasted resources. It deserves to house great dramas like this one.♦

To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.

What, When, Where

August: Osage County. By Tracy Letts; directed by Anna D. Shapiro. Through May 2, 2010 at the Forrest Theatre, 1114 Walnut St. (215) 893-1999 or

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation