Earlier this week I got an E-mail from my aunt that she would be coming to New York for the weekend. I love spending time with my aunt. She’s a few years older than my mother, but is really fun and spunky and we always have a good time together. Anyway, in said E-mail, my aunt offered to take me to see Tracy Letts‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County on Broadway. I had never heard of the show, but happily agreed to go anyway for a night on the town with my aunt. Subsequently, I did a little research online and saw that it looked smart and got good reviews.
The show is a dark dramedy about a dysfunctional family in rural Oklahoma. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, which will make it very hard to write this post, but, as always, I’ll give it my best. The direction of the show is pretty clear from the opening lines, in which Beverly Weston, the family’s patriarch, quotes T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” which continues to weave through the plot throughout the show’s three hours and twenty minutes (including two short intermissions). The play uses Eliot as one riff in its commentary on present-day America, dealing with pretty heavy issues touching on family, addiction, sexual misconduct, illness, and old age to name a few. Despite the play’s length, which I was honestly worried about from the beginning, the sharp and delightfully funny dialogue and superb acting (no, I don’t usually use the word superb) kept me entertained and waiting for the next line from the edge of my seat even three hours in.
What I appreciate most about the play, though, is the allegory of America that it presents using the house to symbolize the country. The Native American “Indian-girl” who seems to be the only stable force of normalcy. Her perspective as an objective outsider provides stark contrast to the turbulent Weston family and a gateway for the play’s discussion of America and the weird beast that is the American nation.
August: Osage County is essentially a play about a family (read country) at the crossroads of deterioration and self-destruction. The family that has built itself up from the poverty, misfortune, and immigrant roots of the past must now deal with the future and cannot find footing on stable ground after Beverly’s tragic death. While the Weston family comes crashing down as they all unite for the funeral, as the narrative progresses it becomes more and more clear that the groundwork for this downfall has been laid over the course of years, and now the family must experience the tragic results, doomed with no escape.
Is America helplessly tumbling into some bottomless abyss? Are we doomed by years of misaction which are responsible for our current economic, political, and social crises? I wouldn’t be so pessimistic. After all, since Eliot wrote of the world ending with a whimper the world has indeed continued to go on just as it always has. But nonetheless, part of what is so compelling about August: Osage County is that it is a period piece of today, telling the story of a country overwhelmed in the vortex on its way down the toilet, whimpering the whole while. The Weston family appears as if they will not make it out. Whether or not America does, on the other hand, still remains to be seen.