REVIEW: August: Osage County (Broadway in Chicago)

The classic American drama of our generation

 August: Osage County - by Tracy Letts

Broadway in Chicago presents:

August: Osage County

 

by Tracy Letts
directed by
Anna D. Shapiro
through February 14th (more info)

Review by Barry Eitel

After closing a little more than 2 years ago at Steppenwolf, Tracy Letts’ American neo-epic August: Osage County makes a triumphant return to Chicago. Its vacation has been pretty productive. The play moved to Broadway, then London, picked up a Tony Award for Best Play as well as the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, and a feature film is in the works. Now the show is on tour around the nation. August occupies a slightly larger space for its homecoming, the massive Cadillac Palace Theatre. Headed by the voracious Estelle Parsons, this touring August retains the intensity of the original, hitting the snowy streets of the Loop with the force of a tornado.

August: Osage County details a few days in the life of the American theatre’s newest favorite dysfunctional family: the Westons. Think of every social taboo present in Eugene O’Neill’s canon and slam into a single, three-act play. Add pedophilia and T.S. Eliot, and soak in alcohol. Letts’ whirling story sucAugust: Osage County - by Tracy Lettsceeds so well because it’s a churning cauldron of the worst kind of secrets, yet each one blows us away as we hear it painfully revealed on stage. If one wanted to peg a genre for the masterpiece, it could simply be described as a murder mystery. But that glosses over the addiction, the familial power struggle, and the utter loneliness the play dwells on. If anything, August harkens back to the sweeping epics of ancient times, played out in the 21st century on the arid plains of Oklahoma.

The visiting show doesn’t bring together any of the original cast. The Steppenwolf Theatre actors have all moved on to their own projects. Although a remount of the original cast would be spectacular, perhaps it is better that Steppenwolf has focused on continuing their commitment to great theatre of all colors. August’s mother has been doing some great work since her son moved out-of-state. Case-in-point: Letts as “Teach” in the current production of another Chicago playwright, American Buffalo by David Mamet. (our review ★★★★)

The touring production really succeeds in pushing the brilliance of the writing. It is obvious that the Oscar-owning Parsons, who has played pill-popping matriarch Violet Weston on and off since the play’s move to Broadway, has a keen insight to Letts’ characters. She has gotten plenty of practice at self-destructing night after night onstage, and the experience shows. Parsons’ Violet is part nagging mother, part tigress, part wandering spirit. She can violate and disgust the audience one moment, then pull out a flood of pity the next. Although she has the stature of a little old lady, Parsons has the heart of Greek god. Throughout the play, Violet finds the toughest resistance from her daughter Barbara (Shannon Cochran), who may be on a path to Violet’s life of drug-induced isolation herself. Fighting bitterly against an actress as brutal as Parsons is a momentous task, but Cochran remains ruthless. It’s a delight for us to witness these two actresses battle on-stage, like two fierce, starving animals placed in a cage where there’s only room for one.

 

August: Osage County - by Tracy Letts August: Osage County - by Tracy Letts
August: Osage County - by Tracy Letts August: Osage County - by Tracy Letts

Unfortunately, some of the other actors can’t find their stride in Letts’ potent language. Emily Kinny, who plays the 14-year-old pot-smoker Jean, comes off as strained and stilted. When the pressure cooker starts to bubble, she can pull out some excellent work, but she congeals quickly when the stakes aren’t as obvious. Jeff Still, who plays Barbara’s estranged husband and Jean’s father Bill, has a similar problem. Amy Warren seems to be pulling from Kristin Wiig in her interpretation of Karen, the oft-ignored third sister. She rides the comedy too hard instead of depending on the text. Luckily, the tenacity of Libby George (Mattie Fae), Paul Vincent O’Connor (Charlie), and Angelica Torn (Ivy) picks up the others’ slack.

As it has been said over and over again in the press, in college classrooms, advertisements, and the blogs, August: Osage County is the classic American drama of our generation. It need not be said again.

 

Rating: ★★★½

August: Osage County - by Tracy Letts

2 Responses

  1. What an amazing set! Did you ever get lost in the split scenes in that massive house? I need to go see it soon!

  2. No, they did a pretty good job of shifting focus. Better try and see it tomorrow. Thanks for the comment!

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