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August: Osage County

by Louise Adams
Wednesday Apr 9, 2014
August: Osage County

In 2007, I saw the premiere of the awesomely brutal, yet completely human, play "August: Osage County" at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company. I worried about its inevitable translation to film. Losing the constriction of a proscenium, which keeps dramatic tension tethered and festering, can scuttle many stage-to-screen adaptations.

Not to worry. Tracy Letts, the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright -- as well as an accessible, grounded guy I met during a "Bug" audition -- also wrote the screenplay, so the familiar familial friction remains intact: Fragile and fraught, realistic and ruthless, a tale of epiphanic genius.

After patriarch Beverly Weston (introspective Sam Shepard) disappears, his three grown daughters return home to the Great Plains of Oklahoma, a landscape of "spiritual affliction," to grapple with their downer-dependent mother, vindictive Violet (fierce Meryl Streep), in a kind of female "King Lear."

Pill-popping and chain-smoking harridan Vi is suffering from the "punch line" of mouth cancer, yet continues to berate her daughters and secret-harboring relatives, rightly explaining "I'm just truth telling." Every Letts line shows a gift of revelatory craft, drawn from a respect for his Okie roots and his artistic home in Chicago. The film made me pine for my Windy City theater days with incisive, in-your-face observations such as, "Don't get all Carson McCullers on me," "I guess we're eating catfish because we're bottom feeders," and "Thank God we can't tell the future, because we'd never get out of bed."

"Thank God we can’t tell the future because we’d never get out of bed."

Bitter, world-weary elder sibling Barbara scores the culminating prophecy as she consumes (then becomes) her mother and spews, "I'm running things now." Amy Morton's ferocious Steppenwolf stage delivery is seared into memory, but Julia Roberts gets the job done in this iteration in what's likely her best and most authentic performance to date.

Blu-ray bonuses include commentary, deleted scenes, a "Making of" featurette, and "On Writing with Tracy Letts," where the author explains that this story "was born out of autobiography, but is not an autobiography. But it's hard to tell where the truth ends and the fiction begins."

Loosely based on his grandfather's suicide when Letts was ten, the narrative, which "he has carried around his whole life," defends that there are smart people in Oklahoma but also cautions that we should be "terrified about what we can do to each other." Letts says he prefers scripts to novels because, in true Second City style, he likes collaborating, and the fact that his ideas change in the hands of other people. "Actors make my work better," he says.

"August: Osage County"

Louise Adams is a Chicago freelance writer at www.treefalls.com (and a nom de guerre).


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