August: Osage County has been enormously popular with critics and audiences since its 2007 debut at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2008, had a successful broadway run, and—despite its large cast, which usually makes a play too expensive for most regional theatres—has been remounted all over the country at venues large and small in the last five years.
The play tells the story, at an epic three-hour length, of the Weston family, whose adult members come together at the family home in rural Oklahoma after the father, Beverly (John Amplas), has disappeared, and (it turns out) killed himself. What ensues is a series of revelations, recriminations, arguments, and betrayals as the family grapples with both past and present conflicts. Barb (Kathleen Turco-Lyon), the eldest daughter, has been abandoned by her husband Ben (David Whalen) for a younger woman. Karen (Meghan Malloy), the youngest, is about to marry the sleazeball Steve (Mark Staley), who hits on her fourteen-year-old niece, Jean (Courtney Neville). Ivy (Elizabeth Ruelas), the middle daughter, is in love with their loser cousin, “Little Charlie” (Dennis Schebetta). And wreaking emotional and psychological havoc at every turn is their angry, pill-popping mother, Violet (the wonderful Mary Rawson), whose struggle with cancer has made her indifferent to the pain her “truth-tellin'” inflicts on her family.
But I’m sorry to say, dear readers: I don’t get it. Don’t get me wrong — I get the play; what baffles me is why the play has been so popular. August: Osage County has some moments of savage, biting, bitchy comedy, no question about it, but those moments offer only brief respite from the play’s otherwise cringe-worthy soap-operatic indulgence in cliché and trumped-up melodrama. More offensively, the play traffics in nearly every imaginable negative stereotype of the American south. Emotionally distant, verbally adept, alcoholic patriarch who has overcome grinding poverty — check. Take-no-prisoners, emotionally abusive, drug-addicted matriarch who was a victim of child abuse — check. Colorful, mean-spirited aunt — check. Idiot cousin — check. Revelation of barely submerged racism — check. Cheatin’ husbands and boyfriends — check. Incest — check. Only thing missing, as far as I could see, was the burned-out pickup on blocks in the front yard.
Perhaps the play is meant to be performed as a camp parody of the “great American drama” it otherwise purports to be? I doubt it, although much of the comedy in the play is scathingly self-critical. The REP production at the Pittsburgh Playhouse doesn’t fail in providing us opportunity to laugh at these characters’ meanness and egocentrism, but there were also too many moments of actorly melodramatic self-indulgence for my taste, during which the play felt more like daytime television than a sophisticated black comedy. Nevertheless, there are some extraordinary performers in the cast, above all Rawson, who is pitch-perfect in her portrayal of Violet’s alternation between cruelty and vulnerability, and between sharp manipulation and drug-addled dependency.
Given the audience reception around me, I was clearly in a minority at the Pittsburgh Playhouse the other evening, just as I’m in the minority of reviewers in not celebrating the play as one of the signal achievements in 21st century American drama. That’s not a particularly comfortable place to be, as a reviewer – for who am I, dear reader, to swim against the tide of critical and popular opinion? As a firm believer that more art – even if it’s not the art I love best – is better than less or no art, and that we should support our local artmakers as they enrich our lives with what they do, I encourage you to see the REP’s production and make your own assessment. Come back and comment, too.