There's always a risk involved in coming to a hit show - especially a hit show on Broadway, where work is put under a microscope of an intensity unknown to the UK. Can the advance word really live up to one's individual experience of the event? And as a sort of corollary, will the audience let the show actually happen, or are they so glad to have tickets to whatever the piece that the occasion is subsumed in an orgy of self-congratulations, to which the play or musical itself is often incidental? These and other questions were at the forefront of my mind the other night as I took my seat at the Imperial Theatre for the 3-1/2 hours of August: Osage County. And here, then, is the ultimate praise afforded what is by some measure Tracy Letts's best play (at last, he's abandoned the rampant paranoia that marked out the likes of Bug). So compelling is the writing and so accomplished the ensemble playing from the Steppenwolf Theatre Company - if Amy Morton and Rondi Reed don't win the leading and featured actress in a play Tonys, the theater Gods just aren't doing their thing - that Anna D. Shapiro's galvanic production came to a wounding life that exists well apart from the hype machine: I'd expected the high intensity face-offs, and the laughs. What floored me were the quieter passages, Letts's capacity for stillness, and the quality of the text as requiem not just for a single, supremely dysfunctional American family but for an entire country-turned-cesspit that is clearly marked out by Todd Rosenthal's capacious set.
I suppose there are enough one-liners that commentators are drawn to those made-to-order citations and not to honoring a script that is bookended quite beautifully by T S Eliot and whose dreamy, reflective first scene strikes notes of despair that are never far absent from that moment on. That's the only time, of course, during which we see the Weston paterfamilias - a role originated on Broadway by the playwright's own father, now deceased, and a character whose fate seems of a sorrowful piece with various of the poets (Hart Crane, for one, not to mention the suicidal, Oklahoma-born John Berryman) cited at the start. Sure, tempers flare during the ensuing three acts, most notably during and following a fractious dinner that finds Letts paying direct homage to a comparable combustibility in Chekhov's Three Sisters, a play whose family make-up is here paralleled up to a point.
But for all that one character or another can be described as having a tongue on fire, what really stings is this play's acceptance of the inevitability of loss. Playing a woman whose mouth cancer seems to speak to the diseased, invective-prove land of which she's so unmistakably a part, Deanna Dunagan gives fearsome (if not always intelligible) voice to a matriarch, Violet, whose mantra is one of people abandoning her, either by means of death (or, worse) a chosen absence. By play's end, she is the one rattling around more or less alone and unloved in the family manse who faces head-on the solitude that differentiates this play very strongly from its Chekhovian antecedents. (At least his sisters have one another!) Violet's sole companion and source of solace would seem to be the Native American housekeeper and cook, Johnna, whose command comes to echo the black denizens of a novelistic landscape, Faulkner's Yoknopatawpha County in his The Sound and the Fury, and that book's Johnna-esque assessment of Dilsey et al via the simple sentence, They endured. Are the Westons in fact Letts's very own version of Faulkner's doomed Compson clan? One is tempted to conclude as much, except that August: Osage Country to its credit at once strikes numerous associative sparks while always staking its own ferociously ori