Estelle Parsons heats up the stage in August: Osage County

I'm a sucker for reality shows such as Wife Swap and Trading Spouses; I love the scenes when you see unlikely people — a farmer and a socialite, a disciplined black family and a droopy, guitar-strumming hippie — suddenly understand each other, even if only for a moment. Every now and then, though, there's a participant who can only be described as evil. One woman who found herself in a lesbian household asked several insulting questions about how gay people do it, then went on to define homosexuality as a birth defect like Down syndrome and said that such babies should be aborted. You really ought to toughen up a bit, she told her infuriated and close-to-tears host. This kind of thing makes for shamelessly fascinating watching, partly because of its startling improbability, but partly because you really want to understand the nature of evil — not just the routine selfishness of the narcissist or the flailings of someone who survived a wretched childhood, and beyond the psychobabble about the psychotic personality. The kind of evil that delights in inflicting pain.

Tracy Letts's huge and celebrated August: Osage County titillates the part of you that enjoys a fight, but it doesn't satisfy your better angels' desire for understanding. The play is filled with monsters — chief among them Violet, one of those insanely destructive mothers who almost literally eats her young. She has cancer (ironically, of the mouth), is addicted to pills, and only comes fully alive when she's eviscerating family members. Violet is hugely entertaining to watch, especially as played by Estelle Parsons, who not only dishes it out with relish, but also manages, in a quiet scene with her older daughter, to suggest some level of humanity — nothing involving understanding or reconciliation, of course, just a kind of fatigued pause.

The play begins with a long monologue by paterfamilias Beverly Weston: once, briefly, a celebrated poet, and now a hopeless drunk. He's in the process of hiring Johnna, a young Native American woman, to take care of Violet. Having done this, he vanishes. Violet — whose feelings about her husband's disappearance involve vengeance and rage but not a trace of concern — calls home her three daughters: Barbara, whose marriage is failing because of her professor husband's affair with a student and whose teenage daughter is about to run completely off the rails; whiny Ivy, the only child willing to live anywhere near Violet; Karen, the youngest, full of self-help bromides and the confidence of having finally found love (although we soon learn just how flawed that love is). There's also Violet's equally mean-spirited sister, Mattie Fae. The men haunt the play's edges, in thrall to their partners' poisoned energy.

Estelle Parsons is Violet in August: Osage County.
Estelle Parsons is Violet in August: Osage County.

Letts has been placed by critics in the company of O'Neill, Shepard and Albee as a playwright of the dysfunctional American family. August: Osage County has a lot of plot (Beverly's disappearance, incest, infidelity, a grown man lusting for a teenage girl, talk of abused childhoods, something vague about inheritance), and also plenty of scabrous humor. There's some real wit — for example, the grace pronounced by Mattie Fae's hapless husband, Charlie, before dinner — and a lot of yelling and arguing. The piece also has a propulsive forward momentum that keeps us entertained through its almost-three-and-a-half-hour running time. But Letts wants to do more than shock and entertain; he wants the Westons to represent the disintegration of American culture. Beverly may be intended to represent a loss of culture and identity, and Johnna is surely meant to be seen as good and nurturant, a wise spirit watching with detachment the hash all these crazy white people are making of things. The action is bracketed by lines from T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men." But though the acting ranges from good to magnificent, with Parsons and Shannon Cochran, who plays Barbara, at the apex, and fine performances from Jon DeVries as Beverly, Libbie George as Mattie Fae and Paul Vincent O'Connor as Charlie, the Westons don't evoke any particular associations beyond their own nastiness. I don't expect profound insight into the human psyche from Trading Spouses, but I do from a play that's been hailed as a masterpiece. On that level, August: Osage County fails to deliver.

 
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