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A month with the family in hell

Published: November 14, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.


I never considered Murphy’s Law a dramatic technique. I know that fate occasionally has a funny way of pouring one affliction on top of the other until a person can’t help but cry for mercy. But from the narrative rollercoaster of August: Osage County, I learned that art reflects life in strange ways, which means that misery gets fair representation.

August, the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play by Tracy Letts, doesn’t offer much refuge for the faint-hearted. The characters remove all safety nets and plunge headfirst into the emotional bloodbath that ensues when the Weston family reunites. When the family’s patriarch, Beverly Weston (John Cullum), goes missing, the estranged relatives converge on his home in rural Oklahoma.

Beverly’s mentally unstable, acid-tongued wife, Violet (Estelle Parsons), faces the chaos of her world with a stream of insults for everyone. She bears no attachment to this world and only survives by abusing prescription pills. Parsons remains in many ways the centerpiece of the play, turning in a performance that is simultaneously pain- inducing and mesmerizing.

When Barbara (Johanna Day) arrives at her parents’ house with her daughter and husband, who she is about to leave, things start to get ugly. Barbara and her sisters still simmer with resentment over their difficult childhoods and struggle to face their abusive mother. Meanwhile, Barbara seems to have enough on her plate, dealing with a philandering husband and pothead daughter.

Letts stacks up the characters in the house as if laying down fireworks to produce the flashiest displays of raw emotion. At times, the story seems so contrived to evoke trenchant conflict that the tension feels as oppressive as the Oklahoma heat. Overall, though, the actors do a masterful job making the characters and their altercations feel poignant and real.

The set, a cross-section of the multi-story Weston house looks something like a mammoth doll house. This seems rather appropriate, as it’s easy to imagine a grown-up dramatist smashing the characters into each other like so many emotionally fragile Barbies. The enclosed space, featuring taped-down blinds and non-existent air conditioning magnifies the characters’ hatred toward each other.

Estelle Parsons deserves a great deal of credit for making unadulterated bitterness seems so wickedly entertaining. Her ability to straddle reality and madness with such transience gives her dimension that few other actors could match.

Johanna Day also proves her dramatic chops with her portrait of a woman who is driven to the edge of desperation—and crosses into it. In an interesting twist on Michael Corleone taking over the reigns from the Godfather, the eldest daughter declares, “I’m in charge now.” As we see her transform into a callous emotional wreck more like her mother than she’d ever admit, we can’t help but ruminate on the tenacious influence of family.

At over three hours with two intermissions, August is like the inversion of an epic. Taking place over a single month in one house, we see the characters either transform or stubbornly cling to their neuroses.

And if you decide to venture into the stifling world of family drama at the Music Box Theater on Broadway, don’t forget that anything tragic that can happen, will.