August in Pawhuska, OK, or the joys of family drama

August Osage County

Shannon Cochran (left) is eldest daughter Barbara and Academy Award-winner Estelle Parsons is Violet, her drug-addled mother, in the national Broadway tour of August: Osage County, running through Sept. 6 at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. Photo by Robert J. Saferstein

 

Where have all the family dramas gone and why did they become so unfashionable?

With the grand-scale success of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-wining August: Osage County, the family drama came roaring back, but while watching the excellent touring production now at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre (as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway season), I had to wonder why in the world the drama of thick family dynamics became so passé.

Incorporating chunks of O’Neill and Williams and Miller, Letts really lets loose in August, a 3 ½-hour trip through family hell, complete with drugs, drink, death, incest, bile and dark, dark humor. We get three generations of the Weston family of Pawhuska, Oklahoma (about 60 miles northwest of Tulsa). We’re deep in the plains, which we’re told is a state of mind sort of like the blues: she’s got a bad case of the plains.

We have the missing patriarch and his pill-popping wife (played by the redoubtable Estelle Parsons), their three grown daughters, assorted other relatives and the lone grandchild (as addicted to her weed as the grandmother is to her pills).

Listening to the audience at the Curran on opening night, it was exciting to feel an audience connecting with a play. That’s what family dramas do because we can all relate on some level. We may not be sleeping with our first cousins, we may not have a mother who takes delight in ripping us to shreds and we may not be quite as dysfunctional as the Westons, but we can relate. We have family members who can slice into us seemingly without even trying. One tossed-off comment can cause a serious wound, and that’s how you know you’re with family. Other people have to work much harder to wound less.

There are two moments in the play that really struck me and reminded me how long it had been since I’d seen a family drama that reminded me just how cathartic a family drama can be.

The first involves Uncle Charlie (Paul Vincent O’Connor – a former Bay Area actor doing great work), probably the kindest, most sensible person in the play. He’s married to Mattie Fae (Libby George), sister of the drug-addled Violet. Charlie and Mattie Fae have a son, Little Charles (Stephen Riley Key), whom Mattie Fae belittles at every opportunity. Finally, Charlie has had enough. He loves his wife and son dearly, but enough is enough.

Charlie: “Mattie Fae, we’re gonna go get in the car right now and go home, and if you say one more mean thing to that boy I’m going to kick your fat Irish ass onto the highway. You hear me?”

Of course, Mattie Fae is astonished to hear her generally genial husband say such a thing. But he’s not finished yet. And this is where it gets good because Charlie (via Letts’ incredible skill with dialogue) is about to reaffirm his love for both son and wife all the while putting his foot firmly down.

Charlie: “I don’t understand this meanness. I look at you and your sister and the way you talk to people and I don’t understand it. I just can’t understand why folks can’t be respectful of one another…We’ve been married for 38 years. I wouldn’t trade them for anything. But if you can’t find a generous place in your heart for your own son, we’re not going to make it to 39.”

I find that extraordinary, partly because it makes me wish that every family in difficulty had a Charlie to provide such a stern moment of clarity and enforced kindness.

Shortly after Charlie lays down the law, Mattie Fae is part of another extraordinary scene, this time with her eldest niece, Barbara (the extraordinary Shannon Cochran). Some deep, dark family secrets are revealed, and Barbara is astonished that her Aunt Mattie Fae is capable of holding such juicy secrets.

Mattie Fae: “…Maybe it’s hard for you to believe, looking at me, knowing me the way you do, all these years. I know to you, I’m just your old fat Aunt Mattie Fae. But I’m more than that, sweetheart…there’s more to me than that.”

That moment really struck me – I immediately thought of family members I’ve known my entire life but whom I’ve never really known – not as anything but my family member. In that one line lies an entire play — not this one, but another one. Maybe Tracy Letts will write it. Maybe someone else. But I’m in the mood for more family drama – families in the here and now, navigating this interesting, troubled, exasperating world of ours.

Read my interview with Estelle Parsons for Theatre Bay Area magazine.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

SHN/Best of Broadway’s August: Osage County continues through Sept. 6 at the Curran Theatre. Visit www.shnsf.com for information.

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