Got the Plains

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august-osage-county.jpgSo let’s get this out of the way.  As I was entering the Imperial Theatre on W.45thStreet in New York last Friday night to see the Broadway transfer of Steppenwolf Theatre’s August:  Osage County, I stopped in my tracks when I saw the dreaded announcement indicating that Amy Morton was going to be out of the performance that night, and that her understudy, Dee Pelletier, would be taking on the pivotal role of Barbara, the eldest Weston daughter.  I was gravely disappointed, especially since I was looking forward to seeing Amy re-create her stunning portrayal from the Chicago production, a heady mix of nuanced self-realizations and volatile emotions, going head-to-head with the magnificence of Deanna Dunagan’s performance.  But since I was on a short trip to New York and had other theater scheduled, I sucked in my large gut and decided to just deal with it.  Which was the right thing to do, anyway.   For August: Osage County in New York, as it was in Chicago, and even without Amy Morton (in fairness, I felt Dee Pelletier gave a very good performance), is a galvanizing theatrical event–a masterpiece, really– brimming with ballsy, I-can’t-believe-Tracy-Letts-had-the-guts-to-write-this drama, but also tackling really provocative, intelligent themes around inter-generational differences, the impact of continued national affluence and indifference, and family dysfunction. 

For those of you who have been living in a space station all these months, August was the theatrical phenomenon during the summer in Chicago, drawing huge lines daily for waitlists and returned tickets during a sold-out run.  Even for theater-savvy Chicago, this was an anomaly- August was not Wicked after all, but rather a 3 ½ hour new play, with two intermissions and a large cast, drawn mainly from the Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble, from a relatively young playwright, about an middle-class Oklahoma clan, whose lives unravel when the patriarch, a drunken, formerly well-known poet, disappears.  It was as outrageous as a daytime soap and as hypnotic as a train wreck, with drug addiction, alcoholism, incest, pedophilia, adultery, and racism against Native Americans liberally strewn among its numerous, intersecting narratives.  But it was also as literate, as reflective, and as smart as the best work of the great American playwrights it paid homage to- Eugene O’Neill, Edward Albee, Lillian Hellmann, and Sam Shepard.  With crackling, memorable dialogue and richly layered characterizations, it posed intriguing questions around the nature of family relationships; the chasm between parents and children caused by generational differences in priorities, life experience, and the fear of both to repeat mistakes and unlearn compromises made; and how the breakdown of the nuclear family, the basic unit in civilized society, was a microcosm of a larger national social and cultural breakdown.  August was ambitious and epic, but also intensely personal, and Steppenwolf gave it the pull-out-all-the-stops treatment it deserved:  fierce performances, creative and fast-paced direction from Anna Shapiro, a towering, meticulously detailed three-story house set, and a haunting, original musical score.  So its move to Broadway, especially after Charles Isherwood’s highly favorable New York Times review, was not surprising.  What has pleasantly surprised theater lovers and observers both in Chicago, New York, and all points in between, is how successful the Broadway run has been (with $ 3 million in advanced ticket sales as of the end of 2007 and incredibly unanimous worshipful reviews), given that 3 ½ hour running time again, and the fact that it’s a straight drama, with no Julia Roberts or Hugh Jackman in it, but with a cast and creative personnel imported almost wholesale from the original Steppenwolf production, written by a playwright making his Broadway debut, developed and premiered in (snotty New Yorker gasp) Chicago, city of flight delays and snowstorms.

Seeing the play again for the second time did not dilute any of its power and allowed me to pay more attention to the details, since I was so swept away by the play’s audacity when I first saw it in Chicago.  I thought more about the play’s allusions to its dramatic pedigree and its well-chosen symbolisms.  I marveled at how technically complicated the staging was for the crazy family-dinner-from-hell scene (which TimeOut Chicago called Anna Shapiro’s Ben-Hur chariot race) and how each facial expression, each body movement, hell, how each character passed the green bean casserole, was indicative of the characters’ relationships with one another.  I listened more closely to and savored the wonderful dialogue, such as Barbara’s lines “Dissipation is worse than cataclysm”, or “Got the plains” (instead of the blues, indicating a massive wasting away), lines which, in single master strokes, brought with them not only insight to the character’s emotional state, but also searing indictments of the indifference and entitlement mentality of a generation who has not known poverty and hardship, unlike her parents’.

Of course no blog post, review, or write-up of the play would be complete without euphoric gushing over a startling cast, giving performances of a lifetime.  Although I thought the actors tended to play a little bit more larger-than-life in the 1,200 seat Imperial Theater than they did in the 300 seat Steppenwolf main stage (a change most notable in Dennis Letts’ performance as Beverly, the missing patriarch, which played very low-key and melancholy in Chicago, robust in New York), the performances continued to be amazing, and actually felt richer, and more lived-in.  As I did in Chicago, I loved Rondi Reed’s kick-ass scene-stealer of a role, as the loud-mouthed, meddlesome aunt with a dark secret.  I thought Francis Guinan as her husband, absent-mindedly weary but full of bottled-up resentment at the way his wife treated their son and others around them, was exceptional.  His saying grace at the dinner table was as much a highlight in New York as it was in Chicago.  I was blown away by the performances of the two sisters, Sally Murphy as the spinster middle sister, and Mariann Mayberry as the kooky, emotionally battered youngest sister, which were already perfectly detailed and idiosyncratic but which achieved more depth on Broadway.  And then of course, there was Deanna Dunagan, giving a legendary performance as the pill-popping matriarch Violet Weston, whose cruelty and abusiveness to her family masked a character so scarred and bent out of shape by the life she had lived that she didn’t know how else to act.  It continued to be a commanding, artistic benchmark of a performance, which the audience in New York, as it did in Chicago, responded to heartily with loud gasps, laughter (both mirth-filled and nervous), woohoos, and sustained applause.  I have been fortunate to see some of the most acclaimed female performances on Broadway of the last several years, performances such as Judi Dench’s in Amy’s View, Cherry Jones’ in Doubt, Fiona Shaw’s in Medea, and Kathleen Turner’s in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but not one of them, not even Dame Judi, came close to the intensity, to the passion, to the burn, that Dunagan, a veteran of Chicago theatre making her Broadway debut, evoked in this killer of a role. 

Sitting at the Imperial, I relived many of the emotions I had that night in July when BFF Camela and I saw August on Halsted st.- amazement, excitement, joy, a wonderful realization that this was great theater which could turn anyone who saw it into an ardent theater lover.  But I also felt a new emotion on Friday night.  As I saw the jaded, self-proclaimed cultural tastemaker of a New York audience jump back into their seats as if hit by a runaway bus when, after brawling with her mother, Barbara screams the “You just don’t get it, I’m in charge now” Act II ender; as they talked incessantly during the intermissions of their awe at the play; as they jumped to their feet heartily applauding the cast at curtain call, I also felt pride, pride in being part of the audience which initially embraced this great work, pride in living in a city such as Chicago that had the temerity, and the talent, to nurture this play, and then export it to Broadway, magnificently intact and uncompromised.  Chicagoans define ourselves in many different ways, as Cubs or Sox fans, as plain-speaking Midwesterners, as proud Blue State progressives, but sometimes we forget, or just plain ignore, to also define ourselves as sophisticated cultural arbiters, as active participants in the American cultural dialogue. The acclaim for August is acclaim for Steppenwolf Theatre, Tracy Letts, and the play’s fantastic Chicago-based talent, but it is also, I firmly believe, acclaim for Chicago- that we play a leading role in the arts in the US, in both incubating as well as presenting, in re-defining as well as advancing.  Hopefully, more of us realize that fact.

Steppenwolf Theatre’s August: Osage County runs till March 9 at the Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th Street, New York City.

2 Responses to “Got the Plains”

  1. Esther Says:

    Great review! It’s really interesting to read how “August” on Broadway differs from Chicago. I saw the play in New York in November, and thought it was just amazing. I’ve never been to Chicago, never seen a Steppenwolf production before, and I was overwhelmed by the incredibly talented cast. It made me realize how much great theater there is all over this country. For me, what really resonated was the interaction between Violet and her daughters, especially Amy Morton. The play says a lot about the lives of women and the pressures we face dealing with our elderly parents. It really resonated with me. Letts’ dialogue is so witty and sharp and emotional. And wow, Deanna Dunagan, from the first moment when she kind of stumbles down the stairs, is mesmerizing. Plus, the banter between Rondi Reed and Francis Guinan was great. I could go on and on. I’m so glad I saw this play.

  2. francis Says:

    Hi Esther, thanks for your comment. I am glad you came across my very modest personal blog. I read your November post on “August” and I agree with all of your points, especially about how audiences come away from this play like the audience of “Death of a Salesman” did in the 50s- that they just witnessed an important, timeless classic of the American stage. With “August”‘s healthy boxoffice (it just got extended again to March 9), it just proves that sophisticated, intelligent theatergoers are not to be underestimated.

    Ps- Hope you can come to Chicago, a great theater town. We have 200+ theater groups and many of them are doing astounding, superb work that New York isn’t lucky enough to see.

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