Saturday, December 4, 2010

August: Osage County by Tracy Letts (2009)

Summary:  The three Weston sisters have returned to the home of their parents in Pawkuska, Oklahoma following the disappearance of their father.  They are joined by various relatives and a recently hired cook/maid/nurse named Johnna as they wait with their drug-addled mother for the phone to ring.  Eventually, Sheriff Heidebrecht visits the family to inform them that Bev's body has been found in the lake, an apparent suicide that will be filed as "drowning."  As the sisters attempt to figure out what to do with their mother (who has mouth cancer and is seriously addicted to painkillers), family secrets old and new are exposed. 

Thoughts:  For the second time in this project, a blurb on the back of the book compares the work to that of Eugene O'Neill.  Jeremy McCarter writes, "August:  Osage County is what O'Neill would be writing in 2007.  Letts has recaptured the nobility of American drama's mid-century heyday while still creating something entirely original."

When I read this play for the first time in May of 2010 after spending a few years lying about having read it, I was both moved and awed by the thirteen characters Letts had created.  Each of these characters is crucial to the transmission of the family narrative, and cases can be made for many of them being the "main" character.  Accordingly, both published critics and friends of mine have called this "the best play of the decade."  If the dysfunctional family is the most celebrated subject in the canon of American drama, this play certainly holds its own in the historical record.  

However, I have now read both this play and Sam Shepard's Buried Child twice and now take issue with McCarter's compliment "something entirely original."  Not only are there overlapping subjects in these plays (which happens all the time in dysfunctional family dramas), there are details and structural issues that contain uncomfortable instances of overlap (what happens in the backyard, the role of the outsider, ghostly ending...)

I still love August:  Osage County and think it is a majorly significant work that excels at doing what many American dramatists have attempted:   a realistic depiction what happens when the adult members of a family are forced back together under emotional circumstances.  However, before making proclamations about grandeur and originality, I think it is important to take a look at the play that won the Pulitzer Prize 29 years before.  

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