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"August: Osage County," Imperial Theatre, NYC, 2007. Photo: Joan Marcus

Not Since What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
By Alexis Greene

August: Osage County
By Tracy Letts
Imperial Theatre
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 County.

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.

Amy Morton as Barbara (left) and Deanna Dunagan as Violet in Tracy Letts's "August: Osage County," Imperial Theatre, NYC, 2007. Photo: Joan MarcusAt 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 Jean.

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 for good.

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.

"August: Osage County," Imperial Theatre, NYC, 2007. Photo: Joan MarcusStop 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 play.

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.

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