A Fractured Family Hits the Road

Special Features   A Fractured Family Hits the Road Tracy Letts talks about the roots of his August: Osage County, the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play now on national tour.
Tracy Letts
Tracy Letts Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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Check a listing of shows on the road at any given moment, and the results are always the same: a cornucopia of musicals and a smattering of straight plays. In an industry in which most every venture is inherently risky, and the demand for musicals far exceeds that for straight plays, sending a sprawling, three-hours-plus play on the road is a particular act of faith.

But the producers and presenters of August: Osage County are confident that theatregoers around the country are as eager to see Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize–winning play as audiences were in New York. "The Broadway community of road presenters was very encouraging about touring the show," says Steve Traxler, producer of the play along with Jeffrey Richards, Jean Doumanian and Jerry Frankel. "The interesting thing about August: Osage County for audience members is that even though the play is over three hours long, the evening really flies by. We hear from audiences all the time that they could have sat in the theatre for another two hours."

August: Osage County, directed by Anna D. Shapiro and starring the redoubtable Estelle Parsons, is a harrowing and hilarious, sharply observed family drama, a tragicomedy about an Oklahoma clan so embittered and embattled that dysfunctional would be a step up. Charles Isherwood, writing in The New York Times, called the play "theatre that continually keeps you hooked with shocks, surprises and delights, although it has a moving, heart-sore core."

Parsons plays the family matriarch, Violet Weston, a pill-popping monster mother whose weary husband walks out the door one Saturday morning and disappears. Her three daughters, her sister and the men in their lives - not to mention a precocious, derisive 14-year-old granddaughter — gather at the family home, and, to quote Robert Penn Warren in "All the King's Men" (as Letts does in the published version of the play), what follows "is very much like diving into the octopus tank at the aquarium." Letts based Violet on his maternal grandmother and says, "When I gave the play to my mother to read for the first time, her response was, 'I think you've been very kind to my mother.'" August: Osage County is a big American drama, in the tradition of Eugene O'Neill — but a lot funnier than Long Day's Journey Into Night, to which it has been frequently compared. It's the kind of play rarely written anymore. It premiered in 2007 at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, where Letts, who first appeared with the company in 1988, has been a member, as an actor and playwright, since 2002. From the outset, he knew the play would be a large, expansive piece. "I was going to tell a story about my family, largely fictional," he says, "and as I was figuring out my story, I realized that it should take place over three acts. As an actor, I've done a lot of pieces that are short and sweet, but sometimes I really like the feeling of settling into a long, good story. I wanted this to be a more luxurious theatre experience."

August: Osage County star Estelle Parsons
photo by Joan Marcus

Despite the show's success in Chicago, it was a gamble to transfer August: Osage County to Broadway. Not only was the 13-character play cast with Steppenwolf actors unfamiliar to New York audiences, but in this era of short attention spans, it was questionable whether a new play of "luxurious" length could find a home in the commercial theatre. "We opened in the days of the stagehand strike," says Traxler, "and we didn't know if we'd run for more than a few weeks. But we believed in the show very much, and it became the little show that could. We discovered that one of the things the show has going for it is that people recognize those characters onstage. During intermission or at the end of the show, people are always in the lobby talking about how they have a friend or relative who reminds them of one of the characters. I think that recognition factor is one component in the show's success. But the main thing is that Tracy Letts is a great storyteller." In addition to the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the play received five 2008 Tony Awards, including Best Play.

The national tour is the show's fourth production. In November of 2008 it premiered in London, where it played an eight-week engagement at the National Theatre. "Before we went to London, there was discussion about how it would be received at the National Theatre — how an American family in London would be received," says Traxler. "It turned out to be a big event, and the run was completely sold out. It was very encouraging to see that, and it gives us a lot of hope that the tour will be successful and well attended. We're playing many of the great touring cities, with strong subscription bases. And most of the venues are places where people are used to seeing touring plays. It was very important to Tracy Letts and Anna Shapiro to maintain the quality of the show on the road. Todd Rosenthal's set is almost identical to the one on Broadway. And we are so fortunate to have Estelle playing Violet."

Parsons succeeded Deanna Dunagan on Broadway in June of 2008. The Academy Award winner was 80 when she took over the role of Violet, and the emotional honesty with which she imbues this exhausting role is powerful and frightening. "She came into the role and made it her own," says Traxler. "She is an incredible actress, and the tenacity with which she plays this character eight times a week is extraordinary. It's exciting that audiences around the country will have the chance to see her remarkable performance."

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