OSF’s August: Osage County

August: Osage County
Author: Tracy Letts
Date attended: 15 September 2011 evening
Venue: August Bowmer at Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Director: Christopher Liam Moore

Why this play now?

I generally enjoy plays about families that are more than off-kilter (see post re: Lie of the Mind). However, I didn’t feel that this play actually added anything to the discussion of what family means, or even how we grieve the loss of a family member.

The play opens with the father giving a lengthy monologue to a women he’s hiring to look after the house. In the monologue we discover that he’s a poet who drinks and whose wife takes pills and is diagnosed with mouth cancer. He also mentions T.S. Eliot a great deal. The next scene is a few days later after the father has gone missing. The wife is high on pills and calls her three daughters home to take care of her and then we discover the father has committed suicide. The action continues to unfold in a meandering way revealing nothing particularly revelatory about family, death, survival, or sisterhood. In fact, the play just seems to force one shit sandwich after another onto the family, but for no purpose except to showcase the family’s cruelty.

The play ends in a particularly trite moment with the mother sobbing, her family having left her, and Johnna sings “This is how the world ends” over and over, never finishing the famous line. Despite all of that the play was engaging if only because the actors were incredibly talented. The story just never said anything worth the ticket price. It seems to revel in shock-value of how horrible people are instead of using that horrible nature to actually say something about families, or how we cope with death. In many ways, even though the family is brought together because of a father’s suicide, they never seem to talk about his death. It seemed that the death was simply a tool to get all the daughters back in the house but served no other purpose.

What’s happening in the work thematically?

  • Families are psychotic
  • Trying to understand
  • Survival
  • Selfishness vs. self-sacrifice
  • Truth
  • Wasted potential

Were there moments of disunity, or areas in which the story-telling deviated from the apparent desired direction? (apparent in this case meaning the direction as it appeared to this member of the audience)

The whole show felt unified on its specific path, though I don’t think that’s a merit in this case. The redeeming factor of the show is that the actors were all wonderfully skilled at portraying the family. The down-side was the play felt scattered. Unlike, Sam Shepard for instance whose families are evil but with a point, the Westons felt evil for evil’s sake. By the end of act one, I was wondering where the story was actually heading and not in an interested way, but because I didn’t think there had been enough information to actually present a cohesive theme or direction.

Every scene was filled with vitriol and bitterness for no apparent reason. The show’s central point seemed to be the family reaction to the father’s suicide, but then Letts added too many elements on top of that very basic and emotional idea. The mother’s addicted to pills and has cancer; the oldest daughter is going through a separation; the middle daughter is having an incestuous affair with her first cousin (later revealed to be her half-brother); the youngest daughter is self-centered and pathetic; the youngest daughter’s fiancée is a stoner, who molests the 14-year-old daughter of the eldest sister; the mother’s sister had an affair with the now deceased father, etc. Add to that, the mother’s abuse as a child which she uses as an excuse to verbally attack her children, and the number of physical assaults that occur between various members of the family and the experience becomes so watered down that there’s nothing left to actually interpret.

Not to harp on the amazingness of Sam Shepard, but when Shepard uses these elements it doesn’t feel forced or shocking. He uses it to make a broader point. Letts’s play came off more about shocking the audience with a “real” family but without ever really achieving great story-telling or any revelation. Had he instead focused simply on the family trying to cope with the father’s suicide, the story could have been poignant and vital. However, as it stands there was no character with which I could identify and other than a few funny lines, I felt like the back and forth quality the play is lauded for was entirely overrated.

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