August and everything after

Rondi Reed, Francis Guinan, and Sally Murphy in August: Osage County at the Steppenwolf Theatre.

Despite Chicago’s reputation as perhaps the best regional theatre scene in the country, I don’t make it out to as many plays as I’d like. This is undoubtedly in part because many of my cultural choices are determined by whether or not there is a pre-existing discourse surrounding the work in question. For better or worse, critics play the role of gatekeepers, and when I’m likely to stumble across only one review of any Chicago theatre production (in the Chicago Reader), I rarely get an overwhelming sense that anything is a “must-see.” Furthermore, for me, half of what’s exciting about a great work of art is the opportunity to join a dialogue, and the dialogue regarding any theatre work is necessarily limited by the few people who have access to it (a single city, a limited number of seats), not to mention the marginalized status of theatre in relation to other art forms.

(This is why I’m sympathetic to Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Movie Wars [2000], a book-length harangue about how Hollywood and the media pre-determine our cinematic choices at the expense of great [usually foreign] films, but don’t entirely identify with his forlorn attitude, since I care as much about popular culture as I do about aesthetics. [The book is an instructive reminder about how popular culture, even so-called art films, is manufactured, however.])

That said, I went to see Tracy Letts’s new August: Osage County at the Steppenwolf last night on the recommendation of a more theatre-savvy friend, who after seeing it in previews, predicted it would win a Pulitzer next year (sadly, the sort of statement that heightened its relevance factor for me), and I found it a pretty remarkable piece of work. It’s a three-hour ensemble drama about an Oklahoma family torn apart by years of anger and resentment and brought together again by the disappearance of the patriarch, and Letts structures the whole thing beautifully, managing the rising tension in brief, two- or three-person interactions until it builds to a climax in a crowded, 11-character dinner scene at the end of Act II. It’s also funny as hell, and that humor is not just a welcome respite from the cruelty and melodrama but an organic response to it and a measure of the characters’ complexity.

The performances of this original cast were mostly superb, especially Amy Morton as eldest daughter Barbara, but a couple rang false for me. I hate to pick on 15-year-olds, but the high-school student who played the admittedly apathetic Jean was wooden throughout, and I wasn’t sure what to make of Sally Murphy, either. The fact that she doesn’t look anywhere close to 44 (despite the fact that she apparently is) made me wonder whether she was miscast as the middle daughter, Ivy, but then (spoilers ahead) I’m not sure I buy her childish vulnerability and her kissin’-cousins relationship with Little Charles if both of them aren’t younger and more naive. (Ian Barford’s Charles reminded me, oddly, of Ben Katz). I’d be curious to see how this is handled in future productions; at the very least, a Broadway version would expand the discourse on this finely wrought drama.


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