Not Since What Ever Happened to Baby
By Alexis Greene
August: Osage County
By Tracy Letts
249 W. 45th St.
Box office: (212) 239-6200
Not since What Ever Happened to Baby
Jane?--the 1962 horror film starring Joan Crawford and Bette
Davis as two vicious sisters--have women been portrayed so downright
evilly as they are in Tracy Letts's new drama, August: Osage
Well, that's probably an exaggeration.
In the theater, there have been Miss Alice, the calculating devil
incarnate of Edward Albee's Tiny Alice, and the vile
mother in Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Lenane.
Still, when Charles Isherwood of the New York Times writes
in his rapturous review of Letts's play, "this is theater that
continually keeps you hooked with shocks, surprises and delights,"
the "you" is possibly not the women who make up at least 50 percent
of the audience at the Imperial Theatre and, we are often told,
are the main purchasers of Broadway theater tickets.
I cannot speak for all women, of course,
but this critic could not watch Letts's three hours plus of women
screaming, bitching, cursing, and even, at one point, attempting
strangulation, without being just a little disturbed by the images
being paraded across the stage.
To summarize the plot for those who have
not yet seen this latest import from Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre
Company: August: Osage County takes place in the large
home of the Westons, who live outside of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, sixty
miles from Tulsa. As the play begins, an aging and alcoholic writer
named Beverly Weston (Dennis Letts, the playwright's father) is
hiring a young Native American housekeeper named Johnna (Kimberly
Guerrero) to take care of his pill-addicted wife, Violet (Deanna
Dunagan). We soon learn that Beverly has disappeared and committed
suicide, leaving his wife, her sister Mattie Fae Aiken (Rondi
Reed), and Violet and Beverly's three grown daughters to muddle
along as best they can. Johnna, it seems, was employed with Beverly's
permanent leave-taking in mind.
first I was impressed that Letts had peopled his stage with so
many women. After all, this is Broadway, and this is the American
theater, where plays about women are comparatively rare commodities
unless written by women themselves.
But as the savage insults poured from Violet,
her sister and notably from Violet's educated daughter Barbara
(Amy Morton), and as it became clear that all the adult women
in this family were mean, dysfunctional or both--Letts's profusion
of women looked less and less appealing. To be sure, no dramatist,
man or woman, is obligated to write so-called positive portraits
of anybody. But at the same time I, as a critic and a feminist,
feel obligated to point out and try to analyze what I see in front
of me on the stage.
Letts strongly suggests, for instance,
that the women's ferocity toward each other is inescapable. Violet
and Mattie Fae's long-dead mother was apparently as brutish as
Violet is to her three daughters and as Mattie Fae is to her only
child, a son named Little Charles (Ian Barford). Barbara berates
her only daughter--pot-smoking fourteen-year-old Jean (Madeleine
Martin)--just as mercilessly. As for Barbara's sisters, Ivy (Sally
Murphy) and Karen (Mariann Mayberry), their particular brand of
dysfunction surfaces in their poor relationships with men and
impoverished attitudes toward themselves. At the end Violet is
deserted by her three daughters, but the daughters' futures hold
little possibility for happiness (Barbara probably kills herself,
as her father did). Letts's message is that these women's behavior
cannot change--certainly not while they are around each other.
The men in August: Osage County
are passive-aggressive recipients of this female brutality. They
deal with these women either by avoiding them, seeking affection
and sexual gratification elsewhere or, in Beverly's case, leaving
the picture completely. Beverly apparently survived with Violet
not only by drinking but also by having an affair with Violet's
sister (a plot complication that Letts drops in, melodramatically,
out of nowhere). Barbara's husband Bill (Jeff Perry) is having
an affair with one of his students back in Colorado, and Karen's
middle-aged fiancÚ (Brian Kerwin) puts the make on fourteen-year-old
While none of that behavior is particularly
admirable, in two cases--Beverly and Bill--the affairs happen
either in the past or off-stage, so that, in contrast to the women's
unpleasant behavior, we do not see it right in front of us. Indeed,
the men are considerably quieter, both vocally and temperamentally,
than the women they have had the misfortune to marry. It takes
almost the entire play for these men to stand up to the Weston
women, and when they do the implication is that the women had
it coming. Bill, for instance, essentially rescues his daughter
from Barbara by taking Jean home with him and leaving Barbara
If the women in this play were not so reprehensible,
the men's failings might be more apparent. As it is, we can't
blame the men for being scared of their wives and mothers, for
they are truly a fearsome lot. At the performance I attended,
every time one of the women seemed to get her just deserts (particularly
the matriarch Violet) a cheer went up from the audience.
and think: do we really want a play where everybody in the audience
roars with approval when a woman gets her comeuppance?
Mainstream critics who have raved about
Letts's play compare the writing to that of Tennessee Williams
and Eugene O'Neill. So let's go with that bit of hyperbole for
a minute. To be sure, Amanda in The Glass Menagerie is
a vengeful woman, careless of her children's feelings. But Williams
gives us enough of Amanda's Southern belle history and enough
insight into her poverty and determination to help us understand
and even empathize with her, despite her cruelty.
Mary Tyrone in Long Day's Journey into
Night is, on one level, a selfish woman, and we understand
her sons' and her husband's anger toward her. But O'Neill knew
that even the most suffering families are complicated entities,
their emotional histories so complex that it is impossible to
sort out the good and the bad, the kind and the cruel. Mary Tyrone
is both loved and hated by her family; she is a victim as well
as a perpetrator.
In August: Osage County, we have
little empathy for any of the women. The most vocal and aggressive
are not three-dimensional characters but viragos. The less aggressive
are simply punching bags.
At the end of the play, we cannot help
but wonder what Letts intends us to take away from this dramatic
stew. The only functioning person left standing is the Native
American Johnna, who has apparently proved her goodness by cooking
excellent meals, saying little and tolerating Jean's pot-smoking
in a kind of live-and-let-live way.
In the production's final image, Violet
finds her way up two flights of stairs to the attic room where
Johnna is sitting on the bed, reading a book. Curling up in a
fetal position, Violet puts her head in Johnna's lap, ironically
seeking comfort from somebody she has insulted throughout the
In contrast to the white European's historical
treatment of the American Indian, Johnna is the only person whom
Violet has not succeeded in killing off, symbolically or literally.
The playwright, however, has long since killed off our tolerance
for his vituperative, one-dimensional women.