“Sprawling”, “ambitious”, “harrowing”, “fiercely funny and bitingly sad”, “blistering”- all descriptors of Tracy Letts’ 2007 critically acclaimed play ‘August: Osage County”. Heralded by critics as the first great American play of the 21st century, Letts’ portrait of a wounded and maladjusted family spans three acts and has been likened to a saga of Greek proportions. The 2007/2008 Broadway production won a staggering number of awards including 5 Tonys and 3 Drama Desk Awards with the play itself earning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Set outside Pawhuska, Oklahoma, the action of the play takes place in the three level home of Violet and Beverly Weston, progenitors of a formidable and epically estranged clan. This is not a happy family. Booze, pills, denial, death, secrets, and some truly disturbing family interactions are the bread and butter of the Weston clan all served up through slashing words and aggressive banter. The psychological dissection of a household far from the ideal is a classic vein of theatre that has been aptly explored and in many opinions perfected by O’Neil, Williams, Albee, and Shepard. Like his dramatic predecessors, Letts drew strongly on his own life to create his first entry into ‘new classic’ territory. As a 10 year-old in Durant, Oklahoma, his own family had to deal with his maternal grandfather’s suicide and grandmother’s subsequent drug addiction.
This formative event is clearly mirrored (and mined) as the play unfolds around the disappearance of Beverly, a funeral, Violet’s addictions and mouth cancer (factual and metaphoric), and the fallout as the disaffected family reunites in the face of loss. Letts’ family ties don’t end with inspiration. Dennis Letts (the playwright’s father) played the aforementioned patriarch and former poet Beverly in both the original Chicago and Broadway casts. (Sadly, the senior Mr. Letts died four months into the Broadway run.) Being so personally entwined with his work might have been what set ‘August’ apart. Letts is no stranger to theatrical success, having been a longtime collaborating artist at the Steppenwolf Theatre (‘August’s original producer), having successful Off-Broadway runs of his gory and unsettling plays “Killer Joe” and “Bug”, the more subdued “Man from Nebraska” as a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2004, and the uncertainly received post- ‘August’ “Superior Donuts”- but it is his visceral 13 character, multi-generational study that continually captures critics and amasses new productions.
While Letts has recently focused more on acting (he made his Broadway debut in 2012 as George in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and subsequently won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Actor), his best known work has gone on to successful tours, international productions (17 countries had produced the play as of 2013), and a movie adaptation starring Meryl Streep. Letts adapted the screenplay, but critics agreed that more than just a little was lost in translation. And though he was publically positive in face of detractors most perturbed by the glossiness of the cast and a modified ending, Letts stated in a 2014 interview with The Guardian that “It’s not a Tracy Letts play, it’s a John Wells film”.
With the intended ending intact, the play Variety Magazine called “deep and highly entertaining work, consistently rich, raw and intense, filled with viciousness and vicious wit“, celebrated by The Chicago Tribune as “A major, not-to-be-missed new American work”, and “…flat-out, no asterisks and without qualifications, the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years” according to Christopher Isherwood of the New York Times will premiere in Utah on August 15th.
Utah Repertory Theater Company and Silver Summit Theatre Company have joined forces to produce this livewire script and present it to a whole new audience. Regular theatre goers will recognize many of the names associated with the production including director Mark Fossen and veteran actress Teresa Sanderson as malevolent matriarch Violet Weston.
The production will run until August 31st at the newly remodeled Sugar Space venue where it will show the fruits of its hard earned and record-breaking Kickstarter labor. The script might be considered a bold choice for a generally family friendly market, but the appropriately timed production is sure to draw those interested in classically American drama and fine storytelling.