August: Osage Country: Southern Gothic Soap Sitcom Theatre

11/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Actor-playwright Tracy Letts, if he writes for another 40 years, will never exceed the wild commercial success of his play August: Osage County, which has just had its national tour reach the Ahmanson Theatre at the Los Angeles Music Center. Its sold-out run at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre, where Letts cut his razor-sharp theatrical teeth, has led to the show running a year and a half on Broadway, and the darkly comedic geneology of the Oklahoman Weston family has garnered the Pulitzer and more Tonys, Oliviers and other awards than a modern American playwright would generally dare wish for.

The New York Times did a disservice in its intial praise of Letts' play, comparing it to O'Neill. While it only sporadically digs deep into the guts of any of its 13 characters, August: Osage County is a breed unto itself, a Sam Shepardesque Buried Child with smarmier, viciously witty dialogue, a three hour plus soap opera-sitcom that finally, at the end, descends to the darkest corners of revelation. It is there that pill-popping, scathing matriarch Violet Weston (Estelle Parsons) lets the eldest of her three daughters, Barbara (Shannon Cochran) know the true story of why the drunken, former poet and patriarch of the clan, Beverly (Jon Devries) disappeared and drowned.

The lack of connectedness among these family members is made apparent as they gather outside not-so-bustling Pawhuska, OK. Violet's daughter Ivy (Angelica Torn) yearns to leave her mother's constant belittling and the baby of the family, Karen (Amy Warren), has brought a fiancé whose name Violet refuses to remember. Over three acts, Letts manages to keep us amused with intergenerational scheming and revelations. But as if suicide, alcoholism, addiction to pills, cancer and financial misdeeds are not enough, the playwright tosses in a stab at pedophilia and incest. One wonders if there is some theatre ordinance that requires every Southern-themed play in this country to deal with incest. With Letts, it is as if the fear of boring the audience has been taken to the zenith of tawdry complication. One half expects a dead character to be dug up from within Todd Rosenthal's towering, daunting A-frame cutaway set.

Yet despite August: Osage County being akin to a Southern Gothic sitcom, there is no denying how immersed we become with the Westons and their relatives and friends, a reality TV family transposed for the stage. Parsons has received much of the acclaim as a woman who sheds no tears for her departed husband, calls her housekeeper "an Indian in my attic" and effortlessly berates anyone in sight. But it is Cochran who not only plays the most developed of Letts' characters but is the one who truly dazzles, her disgust with a philandering husband, recalcitrant daughter and bully of a mother finally pushing her to dare to take charge of this dysfunctional family.

The satisfaction of the aforementioned, final mother-daughter warfare, is, alas, blunted by director Anna D. Shapiro's overly dramatic elongation of the play, ending with matriarch Violet's comeuppance. Still, the proliferation of great one-liners and bad behavior make this a world we can readily dive into for three and one quarter hours, without feeling like we have experienced a guilty pleasure.