Friday, February 5, 2010

"August" in February--In Praise of Estelle Parsons


We finally saw the highly-anticipated "August: Osage County" last night at the Cadillac Palace Theater in Chicago.  Tracy Letts' play was a phenomenon: from its beginnings at Chicago's Steppenwolf theater, to a smashing run on Broadway, five Tony Awards, and a Pulitzer Prize, the show is here for a two-week run, back in its home town. To say that this is an emotionally-charged and complex domestic comedy-drama is an understatement. It's the most stirring and troubling portrait of a deluded family since "Whos's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?".

The premise of the play concerns the disappearance of the patriarch of an Oklahoma family, and the remaining family members' confrontation of long-buried truths. At the center of the maelstrom  is Violet, the wife of the missing man, and mother of three daughters who come home to deal with the crisis, bringing with them their own failures and foibles, only to be exposed raw . Violet suffers from mouth cancer, is addicted to a host of different painkillers, and has lost her ability to preserve the  fragile, arbitrary bonds of  her family.  During the course of the play, she toys with the audiences' sympathies as she presides over the vicious destruction of her daughters' lives.

But, I asked Mark this morning...what is the play ABOUT?

That is where "August: Osage County" rises above the average drama, with its tightly woven themes and well-paced emotional arc. After thinking about it all day, I write this in appreciation of a wonderful piece of playwriting that has given me a renewed energy and inspiration to move forward with my own play:

It's about caring for aging and difficult parents as well as raising children in a world lacking in kindness and self-restraint.  It's about the rage and guilt experienced by the caretakers of loved ones with alcoholism and drug addiction.  It's about how we build layers of self-deception to protect ourselves from painful truths, and how easily these layers can be stripped away.  It's about life's choices, and regret, and the struggle to keep up the appearance of happiness.  It's about greed, anger, the unfairness of love, and the way marriages are saved or destroyed without logic. It's about the absurdity, even hilarity, of the relationships between people that just  happen to be related to one another.  It's about our ignorance of those who work behind the scenes to help us live better, even as we insist on destroying our lives. It's about poets, and writers, and confessions and expressions of love.  It asks if some truths are best kept hidden, and whether we can save each other from our bad choices with the right action at the right time. 

It's about America, in particular the severe outlook of those who live in the "plains", and how we have lost our ability to appreciate our natural circumstances.  The Native American woman  hired to cook and keep house is plain-spoken and clear-eyed, knows what she wants, and is content with what she has.  Her presence in the play raises it to a level of a metaphor that hovers over the play from her attic bedroom in the intricate 3-story set Letts required. 

Just like the Weston family, the country is seen as having lost its promise. Violet retreats finally to the attic, desolate and desperate, for comfort, which their housekeeper provides, in a tableau reminiscent of the extraordinary "pieta" of "Cries and Whispers".  It is sad, but not devoid of hope.

I write this in appreciation of well-developed, original characters, written with humor and honesty. I was surprised at the number of laughs the play elicited, especially during the centerpiece dinner scene, which takes the audience from farce to rage.  At the end of Act Two, I was wound up with a mixture of anger and relief at suspense that had just been barely relieved.  

Most of all, I write this in appreciation of the talents of 82-year-old Estelle Parsons in the lead role of Violet Weston.  I admired her from the first time I witnessed her primal performance as Blanche Barrow in "Bonnie and Clyde" (Best Supporting Actress Oscar, 1967). 

Her explosive and heartbreaking work in this play was like a personal act of love from her to the audience.

Parsons was reluctant to take on the role; as a New Englander, she thought the raw honesty of these characters was too foreign to her.  Yet she agreed, and later joked that she found her inner "viciousness" necessary to embody the character.  Parsons always had a sly presence on the screen, a barely disguised humor in her acting.  Here, on stage,she is so given over to the role, its physical depictions of additcion, her wild swings from raucous humor to pathos, it is impossible to see her as having played anything else.  Her energy and emotional investment exhausted her....she could barely smile during the curtain call.  I want to thank the whole cast and crew, and Tracy Letts, and especially Parsons for giving us a carefully constructed masterpiece mounted with great care by all involved.

This was a defining moment in my newly expanding foray into serious theater.

Postscript: Apparently Tracy Letts has completed a version of the screenplay for the film now being produced by the Weinstein Company.  Casting has not yet begun, but there is a frenzy of agents and performers jockeying for parts.  If the movie keeps its focus tightly on the characters within the setting of the house, without "opening up", it could be a powerful classic.


  1. This play sounds fantastic! I think it would be a great project for HBO films. They do excellent work like "Grey Gardens."

  2. Estelle, and the play, sound amazing! I'm glad you and Mark had such a great time. I didn't know her name, but the minute I saw her photo I was instantly familiar with her from so many of her television roles over the years. Live theater is such a wonderful experience when it's done well. It's a pity that so many don't have the means to go see it and appreciate what a tremendous art form it truly is. Great post, Tom!

  3. They should get William Friedkin to direct the film version. He did three film adaptations of plays (The Birthday Party, The Boys in the Band and Bug) in which he DIDN'T open them up but retained what made them work on the stage. All three films are excellent, albeit forgotten today.

  4. I love this play. I think I lost my copy, though, but I'm willing to buy another one. Tracy Letts is a genius. I cannot wait for the movie. Did you see the casting ideas on The Film Experience and Silver Screening Room?

  5. The more I hear about August the more I want to see it. I am weary about it's inevitable screen adaptation, so many plays lose something in the process and moving it out may be the least of the worries.