Rarely, they say, has home, hearth and hell been so hilariously served.
Familial in-fighting has produced some famous American plays, and this new addition demonstrates how the gritty has gone to giddy — from The Little Foxes and Long Day's Journey Into Night to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance. Humor battling for life amid the billowing chaos is what Tracy Letts has brought to this genre, and it transforms this familiar terrain into something quite fresh and — startlingly! — funny.
He wrote, if not sculptured, this opus to the talents of his fellow actors in Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company — and then let 13 of them duke it out, refereed artfully by troupe director Anna D. Shapiro.
The play is set in a big, rambling framed house in Pawhuska, OK, some 60 miles northwest of Tulsa. The wind that comes sweepin' down the plain here is mostly verbal tornadoes that can go from personal to physical. Indeed, one character calls her condition after many bruising exchanges "the plains."
For mood-setting foreshadowing of the abrasive togetherness ahead, consider how in the opening scene Beverly Weston (played by the author's father, Dennis Letts) describes the lay of the land to Johnna Monevata (Kimberly Guerrero), the woman he has hired to be the family housekeeper/caregiver: "My wife takes pills, and I drink," he says. "That's the bargain we've struck." Then, he hits the door and takes a permanent powder, leaving the stage to a Medusa-like matriarch, the violently abusive Violet Weston (Deanna Dunagan), who delivers knockout punches to her three daughters and, democratically, anyone else who crosses her path for three acts and three-plus hours. Lest that strike you as a long time in the ring, rest assured that once the play catches fire the hours melt away. "Everybody says that," Dunagan admitted. "'Three and a half hours!' And then they say, 'Oh, it doesn't feel like we were there an hour.' You know, we had one audience here in New York that actually applauded during the blackouts before the curtain — in anticipation of the curtain going up. That has never happened to me before."
One first-nighter who roared over the mother's malevolent rampages was Elaine Stritch, herself a veteran Virginia Woolf-Delicate Balance combatant. "That's very interesting," Dunagan said, turning the compliment over in her head. "I did A Delicate Balance a couple of years ago, and I did her role. But I didn't have a person in mind for this performance. It's Tracy's grandmother, y'know, but he wrote it in such a beautiful way. The rhythms and the language are there, and they tell you exactly who that character is."
Letts had no problem admitting the factual roots of the role: "Yes, it's based on my grandmother. When I gave the play to my mother to read — my grandmother's daughter — my mother's first response was: 'I think you've been awfully kind to my mother.' That should give you a reference point to the person we're talking about."
August: Osage County marks his first Broadway opus, and he spent opening night like George Hamilton (as Moss Hart) in "Act One" — "kinda pacing around at the back and walking in and out, that sort of thing. It was a great experience, though, seeing how well the audience reacted. It's a tribute to these wonderful ensemble actors who do such a phenomenal job. I wrote it to what they can do. It's a tribe the way we work. We know each other's moves pretty well by now. It's a tremendous relief to have this finally open."
Heretofore, Letts has worked in Steppenwolf transfers Off-Broadway — as an actor (in Orson's Shadow) and as an author (of Killer Joe and Bug). Neither play — the first was pretty blood-soaked, the second was bizarre — adequately prepared you for the reality and humanism in August, although the outrageous wit infects all three. His style of writing veered into a new dimension with his third play, Man From Nebraska, which was done by Steppenwolf and South Coast Rep and got him in the running for the Pulitzer Prize.
Invitations to the opening-night party were delivered sotto voce, and the guest-list didn't go much beyond limited press and seasoned Steppenwolves. Still, this was enough to gridlock the second floor of Virgil's Barbeque on West 44th. Jeffrey Richards, Jean Doumanian and other strike-strapped producers opted for a low-keyed, inexpensive venue, but the down-home cooking was perfectly in keeping with the play's rustic roots.
And the mood was jubilant from the start, what with producers texting the through-the-roof reviews and then spreading the word around the room.
Two of Steppenwolf's founding fathers were in attendance: Gary Sinise (who had just wrapped his last episode of "CSI: NY" and gone into an enforced hiatus until the Writers Guild strike is settled) and Jeff Perry (who has a role in August, Bill Fordham, one of the daughters' philandering husbands). "When I watch this play," Sinise said, "it's just like watching my family up there. I've know some of these people for so long, and we've done so many plays together. Some of us go all the way back to college, in fact."
Rondi Reed, who brings some scene-stealing comic relief to the play as Dunagan's overbearing and vulgar sister, seconded that motion. "The man who plays my husband, Francis Guinan — he and I have actually known each other for more than 35 years so when he has that line about 'We've been married for 37 years' — that's pretty close."
Sinise's Tony-nominated Ma Joad of Steppenwolf's The Grapes of Wrath, Lois Smith, also basked in the special spectacle of watching old co-stars at work. She was also up for a Tony for another Steppenwolf revival, Buried Child — and, come spring, she's rebounding to Chicago (not to Steppenwolf, to the Goodman) to reprise the performance that won her five different acting awards in New York last year — the runaway old lady in A Trip to Bountiful. But first, in January, she will get her name writ large and in gold on the Theatre Hall of Fame here.
Evan Handler dropped by as well, having wrapped his role of Kristen Davis' husband in the "Sex and the City" movie. Next project: "I have a new book coming out May 1 from Riverhead — 'It's Only Temporary: The Good News and the Bad News of Being Alive.'" It's a follow-up, ten years later, of his "Time on Fire: My Comedy of Terrors," a stage monologue-turned-memoir about his surviving leukemia. Other Steppenwolf alums: Joan Allen (now a screen star but, she said, sorely tempted to return to the stage after what she had just seen), Tim Hopper and Jim Orlieb (who opened the night before in The Farnsworth Invention).
Most of the evening's star-power was concentrated at the Imperial. Few lingered on the sidewalk because of the weather, which was beyond blustery, and made their way immediately to their seats. Captain Queeg and the lawyer who wore him down on the witness stand in Broadway's last Caine Mutiny Court-Martial — Zelko Ivanek and David Schwimmer — bumped into each other, rushing inside from the cold.
The glittery herd included Pulitzer Prize-winning David Lindsay-Abaire, Eric Bogosian, Penny Fuller (who'll be re-Dividing the Estate next November when that recent Horton Foote play moves uptown to a Shubert theatre to be announced), Christine Ebersole & Billy Stritch, director Joe Mantello (in an Elmer Fudd hunting cap) and playwright Jon Robin Baitz, The (forthcoming) Flamingo Kid's Michael Mayer and Susan Birkenhead, November's Laurie Metcalf, producer Chase Mishkin, actor-playwright Bruce Norris (whose plays have premiered in Chicago under Shapiro's direction), producer Daryl Roth, David Margulies (fresh from The Price at Long Wharf), Ana Gasteyer from Broadway's last Threepenny Opera, columnist Michael Musto, A Feminine Ending's Marsha Mason (hinting she may be back on stage here "after the first of the year"), Christine Pedi, Spring Awakening's Tony-winning Duncan Sheik and Tom Hulce, Anthony Edwards, Bobby Cannavale and Alison Pill, Atlantic's Neil Pepe and Roundabout's Todd Haimes, Kathleen Marshall and Marian Seldes.
An inordinate amount of critics and columnists attended the opening, many of them fresh (if that's the right word) from a screening of Tim Burton's splashy-slasher rendering of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. Graciously putting a good face on it, the original Tony-winning Mrs. Lovett — Angela Lansbury — said at the Imperial, "It's quite a different thing."
Alan Rickman, in town to promote the picture, was present at August and in the pink, despite the buckets of blood he loses to The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. "I was only acting," he shrugged.
The three sisters in August — played by Amy Morton (Sinise's Nurse Ratched in the last One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), Sally Murphy (Julie Jordan in the Lincoln Center Carousel) and Mariann Mayberry — are more Lear-like than Chekhov-like, given to fisticuffs when words fail them. So it's good to have an old friend to fight with, reasoned Murphy. "We've all been in each other's lives for so long, and that comes in handy when you're playing a family. Because we are." Shapiro said her directing job was made much easier by that familiarity factor. "You've got a really well-structured script, and then you have really wonderful actors who are very trusting and allow you to use them. It's a great combination of them trusting me to say, 'Okay, you move over here, and you move over there,' combined with their natural instincts. It means that I only have to do about 50 percent of the work."
Comedy that comes out of chaos is dangerous, but eminently desirable for Shapiro. "I'm most comfortable in that kind of situation. Anything else would be boring to me. You try to stay in your given circumstances and work on the faces of the characters. Then, as far as it goes is as far as it goes — but that's based on a individual and their given circumstances, and we trust that. That's where we work from."