While in NYC last week, PJ and I saw Tracy Letts‘ new play, August: Osage County at the Imperial Theatre. This production transferred from the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago with most of the same cast. It’s a great play, the best one we saw while we were there.

August is ostensibly a family drama, the Weston family to be exact, set in Osage County, Oklahoma. The play begins with a scene in which the Weston patriarch, Beverly, played by Dennis Letts (the playwright’s father), hires a housekeeper, Johnna Monevata, played by Kimberly Guerrero. He and his wife, we learn, need a housekeeper because he drinks and she takes pills. It turns out that his wife, Violet, played by Deanna Dunagan, takes a lot of pills. A lot. Johnna, who is Native American, needs the work, so she accepts the job and the play gets underway.

The cast of August is rather large, and you need a flow chart to keep track of everyone. Conveniently, the playbill provides one (right click on the image and click on “view image” to see a larger version):

August Family Tree

The drama begins in the second scene, in which we soon learn that Beverley has disappeared. The rest of the play traces the effects of this disappearance on the Weston family as each of the now grown children returns home to help their mother cope with the situation. Each of these daughters has problems of her own.

The middle daughter, Ivy, played by Sally Murphy, still lives in the same town as her parents. A 40-something who appears to have put her own life on hold in order to take care of her parents, but we eventually learn that her life is less on hold than the rest of her family thinks. In fact, she’s been living a shocking double life.

Barbara, the eldest daughter, played by Amy Morton, has moved to Colorado with her husband and daughter at least in part to get away from her parents. Her family is disintegrating: her husband, Bill, played by Jeff Perry, is having an affair with one of his students, and their daughter Jean, played by Madeleine Martin, is experimenting with sex and drugs as a way of dealing with her parents’ estrangement. (Perry is a co-founder of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and played the gay high school teacher who helps Ricky in My So-Called Life.)

Mariann Mayberry plays the youngest daughter, Karen, who is engaged to a Miami business, played by Brian Kerwin. Karen thinks she’s found the man of her adolescent dreams, but her dreams actually seem to be clouding her judgment in this case — he’s no romantic hero.

The family tree is completed by Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae, played by Rondi Reed, and her family, which consists of a husband, Charlie, played by Francis Guinan, and a son, Little Charles, played by Ian Barford. They each have secrets of their own that are revealed over the course of the play.

On one level, I guess you could say that this play is all about family secrets and what happens when those secrets can no longer be kept. But it’s also about a lot more. It’s a political allegory, in the sense that you can take the family drama as a metaphor for the political and social debates that have fractured American politics and culture in the past 40 or 50 years. And it’s a play about adults’ relationships with their aging parents–how do you deal with the people that raised you and, as a result of how they raised you, screwed you up so badly?

However one wants to interpret the play, one thing is undeniable: it’s great entertainment. Dunagan is wonderful as the drug-addled viper of a mother. When she can longer bear the strain of her husband’s disappearance, she turns on everyone else, zeroing in on their weaknesses and lashing them with her acid tongue. Dunagan is marvelous in this juicy role. If she doesn’t win the Tony next year, there’s no justifying it.

Morton is also great. As the play progresses, Barbara’s character evolves–or, more accurately, devolves–into an alcoholic mess. The New York Times review of the play suggests that she becomes a mirror image of her mother, but I would argue that she actually becomes a version of her father. We only get hints at the parents’ relationship, but Barbara’s increased reliance on booze to get through the day exactly mimics her father’s behavior in his one scene. I would give Morton a featured actress Tony if it were up to me.

The entire cast is good, and the play, which is 3 hours long (with 2 intermissions), swings along despite its epic proportions. It reminded me of Angels in America in the sense that it’s an intellectual play that’s trying to say something about America in its specific moment. As soon as it was over, PJ and I both wanted to read it. I’m still looking forward to its publication so I can study it and hopefully teach it some time.

I highly recommend it.