Saturday, June 26, 2010

Douglas Messerli "Muddy Boots" (on Tracy Letts' August: Osage County)

by Douglas Messerli

Tracy Letts August: Osage County, Imperial Theatre, December 4, 2007 / the performance I attended was on January 22, 2008

“A fraught, densely plotted saga of an Oklahoma clan in a state of near-apocalyptic meltdown,” began Charles Isherwood’s review of August: Osage County in the New York Times, “August is probably the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years. Oh, forget probably: It is, flat-out, no asterisks and without qualifications, the most exciting American play Broadway has seen in years.” Newsday described the play as “riveting,” “arguably the best new American play since Albee's The Goat.” The New York Daily News raved “In August: Osage County, which opened Tuesday at the Imperial Theatre, author Tracy Letts, in his Broadway debut, creates a hugely ambitious, highly combustible saga that will leave you reeling.”

How could I not attend such a play on my January visit to the city? While I left the Imperial however, recognizing the ambitions of this play, and I was, in fact, reeling—given the three-hour length of this drama—otherwise I was quite unable to explain the superlatives of New York critics, a position I share with the more introspective review by Peter Marks of the Washington Post.

Certainly this play called up several of the grand masters and works of American theater: although representing a much larger family, August echoes with the pained outcries of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night and reverberates with family squabbles of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But in the end, the play seems to have more in common with that dramatic potboiler of family greed and vengeance, Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. Yet even Hellman’s heavy-handed portrayal of the monstrous American family, The Hubbards, can’t quite compare with the evil shenanigans of Tracy Lett’s Oklahoma-based Weston clan.

Already in the very first scene, as sometime poet and academic, now full time drunk Beverly Weston hires a Native American (a term that seems to outrage other Weston family members) as cook-nurse-nanny to him and his wife, we are told of the couple’s eccentricities: if Beverly is an alcoholic, his wife Violet’s choice of self-destruction is through pills, the two living together in a shuttered-up house, recognizing neither night nor day in their wretched lives. Nearby, lives their middle-aged daughter, Ivy, a woman clearly desperate to escape her family ties.

When Beverly soon after goes missing, the remaining two daughters, Barbara and Karen descend, along with their husband, boyfriend, daughter, uncle, aunt, and cousin upon the old homestead, each bringing with them serious emotional baggage.

Quickly—just to get it out of the way—I’ll reveal some of the choicer family tidbits of this miserable brood. The eldest daughter, Barbara is married to a college professor who is having an affair with one of his students, and their daughter, Jean, takes advantage of the breach between her parents to smoke pot and engage is some serious sexual teasing of the youngest Weston daughter’s new boyfriend—the first serious love of Karen’s life—Steve Heidebrecht. His fiancée, is clearly a thick-headed dreamer who has tried out numerous religions and crack-pot theories, and is so self-deluded that when Steve is caught red-handed by the housekeeper sexually attacking her young niece, she supports her fiancée’s denials. Ivy, meanwhile, obviously has a screw or two loose, simply in the fact that she has remained at home, and now feels so abandoned that she has cut away her emotional connections with all family members—except for her cousin, Little Charles Aiken, whom she plans, despite their close kinship, to marry.

Mattie Fae Aiken, Violet Weston’s sister, verbally abuses Little Charles, while her husband, Charlie lovingly forgives his son’s inability to find a job or even arrive on time for his Uncle’s funeral. Oh, I forgot to tell you, as the family has gathered round the overheated hearthside of the old family estate, Beverly’s body has been found, apparently having drowned himself in a nearby lake!

Despite her daily—sometimes hourly—cocktails of any drug she can find, Violet remains quite violently in charge of this improbable gathering of clan. Like Medusa, she confronts them, demanding awful attention, seeming to know all their dark secrets even before they do. When Mattie Fae discovers that Ivy is planning to marry her son, who is actually Ivy’s half brother, the product of her long-ago affair with Beverly, she confides in Barbara. But later, as Barbara attempts to gently reveal the truth to her sister, Violet blurts it out, having known of her husband’s infidelity for all these years. Her spiteful revelation sends Ivy out of the house with even more determination to marry her brother-cousin!

As everything comes to a rancid boil, most of the family escape, leaving Barbara to cope with her mother—until she too is faced with yet one more family secret: Violet knew of her husband’s intention to commit suicide, and instead of calling the motel to save him, waited until she could open their safe-deposit box the next day, reconfirming his belief that she no longer had any lingering love nor desire to save him or herself.

When finally even Barbara runs off into the night, Violet is left only with the hugs of the inexplicably unflappable and competent housekeeper Johanna, who sings her an Indian lullaby.

If my quickened recounting of family affairs sounds a bit incomprehensible, I readily admit it. But this is, after all, a soap opera plot. Unlike the witty family drama I saw two days earlier, The Homecoming, whose effects relied almost entirely upon language, August: Osage County, despite some moments of witty verbal sparing, relies almost entirely upon this ludicrous plot. While the wonderfully talented acting ensemble from Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater hide the fact, the truth remains that few, if any, of these figures are complex enough to explain their over-the-top behaviors.

Why is Barbara’s husband, for example, so determined to return to his student sweet-heart, daughter-in-tow, when it is apparent to all that the affair will be only a temporary event? Although we are told that his wife is transforming before his eyes into a hard-hearted woman like her mother, there is little evidence of that fact in the play itself; indeed Barbara seems to me as the only sane, if slightly overwrought, character in the whole bunch. Certainly she is the only family member willing to take on any responsibility. It is she, after all, who knows what do about her mother’s addiction, how to confiscate and destroy all those hundreds of hidden pills, hidden previously even within the folds of her own vagina. Only Barbara seems to discern that her sister Karen is equally doomed in her would-be relationship with the philandering Steve, that her other sister Ivy should be stopped from marrying her near-idiot brother-cousin. Why is Ivy so determined, after remaining all of these years at home, to suddenly run off? Clearly she is tortured by her mother, but it is also quite obvious she will be unable to find any employment, nor her companion-to-be, who apparently has lived most of his life without a decent job.

For that matter, how did the father and mother of this maniacal brood become such impossible ogres? Can Beverly’s lack of real poetic and intellectual talent truly explain his dipsomaniacal-suicidal condition? And how might anyone become the harridan that Violet represents? Her story of her unfulfilled desire for a Christmas gift of a pair of cowboy boots in order impress a teenage boy for who she had developed a schoolgirl crush, hardly explains her total selfishness, her greed, her near-murderous acts.

Her story—as she pulls open the Christmas box wherein she imagines the lovely boots to be waiting, she discovers instead a pair of muddy, shit-covered galoshes, awarded to her by her mother out of spite—gives evidence rather to something with which the author himself has not completely come to terms: that all those Western myths, the cowboy lore of courage, honesty, determination, hard work, and belief, you know, the kind of frontier ethic posited by hundreds of American tales, films, and even musicals [see my essay on the musical Oklahoma! in My Year 2002] seldom, perhaps never existed. It was always men and women stomping through the mud and shit of their lives that made us what we are today, an often mean and stupid folk, a people who would still prefer an operatic-like overstatement of our existence, like Letts’ play—a reality born, metaphorically speaking, from a “cancer of the mouth” (Violet’s illness)—than a truly complex revelation of our mutual experiences.

Los Angeles, February 9, 2008
(c) 2008 by Douglas Messerli