Support Local Journalism. Donate to Cleveland Scene.


August: Osage County feigns greatness

Cole Porter declared prophetically in 1934 that "anything goes." Confirming that truth, Tracy Letts' August: Osage County (at PlayhouseSquare through Sunday) won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It would have been just as logical for the jury to bestow the prize on Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean ride. They're both effective yet mechanically rigged trips built out of centuries of plundered mayhem.

While the techno wizards in Orlando offer a rousing, robotic Bluebeard slashing plastic throats, the equally adroit Letts has conjured up a lacerating, pill-ridden matriarch who annihilates egos. The play takes an Oklahoma family through every histrionic land mine, from addiction to zealous recrimination.

Back in the last century, playwrights like Anton Chekhov and Samuel Beckett attempted to purify the stage by purging their works of melodramatic frippery. Letts takes the opposite approach. He functions like a literate vampire, engorging himself on chaos, ranging from Elizabethan bloodbaths to Eugene O'Neill-like weltschmerz and emotionally bottled-up Lillian Hellman villainesses.

Letts' talent is taking all this input and rendering it in a form that brings to mind Roy Lichtenstein's pop-art cartoons. Although this makes theatrical fireworks and gives performers a chance to show off their vocal dexterity, it leaves little room for a human soul.

Perhaps the play's greatest failing is overkill. It runs three and a half hours. Tony Kushner's even longer Angels in America had the excuse of half a decade of political history. Wagner had the excuse of genius. But Letts seems only to have the need to cram in visceral thrills from every literature course he encountered on the way to adulthood.

Letts is an actor and the son of an actor, and he knows how to concoct juicy plot twists that propel outrageous behavior. The opening scene works like a great overture, with the family patriarch explaining to the new Native-American maid the history of his wife's pill popping, his children's greed, and his relentless mediocrity.

In this perfectly rendered touring production, Jon DeVries — with his George C. Scott growl — is the human equivalent of the thrilling trumpet that opens Gypsy.

At age 82, the bravura manner in which Estelle Parsons descends a staircase would be a miracle in itself. But as Violet, the drug-addled matriarch, she has the depraved vitality of a Christmas elf gone psychotic. It's a portrait of addiction so potent, rehab clinics could use it as a warning to potential patients.

The late director Robert Altman would have been the ideal ringmaster to shape Letts' grotesqueries into a riveting, coherent work of art. We are happy to settle for Anna D. Shapiro's bold guidance and application of directorial oil to keep these treacherous gears spinning smoothly.  

We’re keeping you informed…
...and it’s what we love to do. From local politics and culture to national news that hits close to home, Scene Magazine has been keeping Cleveland informed for years.

It’s never been more important to support local news sources, especially as we all deal with the ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic. Almost everything Scene is about -- our stories, our events, our advertisers -- comes down to getting together. With events on hold, and no print distribution for the foreseeable future, every little bit helps.

A free press means accountability and a well-informed public, and we want to keep our unique and independent reporting available for many, many years to come.

If quality journalism is important to you, please consider a donation to Scene. Every reader contribution is valuable and so appreciated, and goes directly to support our coverage of critical issues and neighborhood culture. Thank you.

More by Keith A. Joseph


Showing 1-1 of 1

Add a comment

Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-1 of 1

Add a comment


Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.


Staff Pick Events

  • 78th Street Studios Third Friday Art Walk @ 78th Street Studios

© 2020 Cleveland Scene: 737 Bolivar Rd., Suite 4100, Cleveland, OH 44115, (216) 241-7550
Logos and trademarks on this site are property of their respective owners.

Website powered by Foundation