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Letter From the Artistic Director on August: Osage County

by Martha Lavey

This is an enormously proud moment for Steppenwolf. August: Osage County by Tracy Letts, represents a confluence of the unique strengths of our theater: a play created by an ensemble member whose work has been seen on the stages of Chicago, New York, California and London; directed by his long-time collaborator, ensemble member Anna Shapiro, another artist with national and international credits; performed by a cast of outstanding Chicago actors and eight Steppenwolf ensemble members. The play was developed through the New Plays Initiative under the dramaturgy of Steppenwolf Director of New Play Development, Ed Sobel. And it premieres for you, the Steppenwolf audiences who have supported our core values of innovation and ensemble with your adventurous appetite for new and challenging work and your loyalty to the theater and our artists. August: Osage County is a play that not many theaters would undertake: a new play with 13 characters, a play rigorous in its thought, vigorous in its language, a play that delves deeply into our human challenges and heartbreaks, and a play that brings to vivid life the complex tumult of the humor, wit and sorrow of our most intimate connections. As a writer, Tracy sort of amazes me. The voice in his plays is always identifiably his own but takes on such strange, elastic nuance play to play. First there was Killer Joe--wild, irreverent, funny and obscene. Then, Bug--dense, paranoid, political. Then, Man from Nebraska--again, the humor, but humble, sweet, profound and spiritual. Now: August: Osage County. Again, an enormously deft deployment of language--veering from the outrageous to the tender. But oh my--the scale of the thing. In three acts, Tracy tells a multi-generational family story that traces the legacy of the lies and wounds, the alliances and crazy tendernesses that define our most intimate connections. By introducing the character of an outsider--the Native American woman who comes to tend the family in need and who lives, not incidentally, in the attic of their home--Tracy invites us to see the story of the Weston family as the story of our American heritage. To what does this woman, a "native American" who has lost her own family, bear witness in the drama of the Weston family? And who is this American family? The patriarch is an academic and a poet. And an alcoholic. The matriarch is a wife and a mother. And a drug addict. Does this recall that other towering family of American drama, the family of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day’s Journey Into Night? So be it. Does the exchange of insult and dependence in the Weston family recall the pact between Martha and George in another great American drama, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? So be it. These allusions--familiar to an American theater-going audience--are being consciously invoked by Tracy to encourage our reading of August as a drama of not only one family, the Westons, idiosyncratic in their personalities and relationships but also, our reading of the Westons as emblematic of a characteristically American family. The positioning of Johnna Montevata, a Cheyenne American, as the witness--the ghost in the attic--reinforces this allegorical reading of the Weston family. Johnna arrives at the Weston home as the poet-partriarch of the family recounts the trajectory of his family's exhaustion. The house has become dysfunctional--the children dispersed, the physical environment in disarray, the survivors--he and his wife--unable to maintain their own care and feeding. The once prize-winning poet has succumbed to the dissolution of drink--he has turned his life over to the "Higher Power" of his own incapacity and "join(ed) the ranks of the Hiring Class." He has given over the agency of his life to a paid employee--one, who, not incidental to this American tale, is a "native American" whose own father has died in an agricultural accident. With purposeful irony, Tracy describes the death of Johnna's father who died in a sea of wine grapes--falling into a flatbed truck of the grapes he was hired to harvest. So, where the poet, Beverly Weston, has chosen the demise of drink, Johnna's father is swallowed by grapes he picks to make the wine (that kills the man who owns the house that Johnna is being hired to put in order...). It's the story of "the House that Jack Built"--our childhood trope on the action of recursion. It's recursion that Tracy is examining: the recursions within any individual family and the recursion of our American family (that returns us, finally, to the family of our "native Americans"). Recursion is the return, the determination of a succession of events by the operation of a set of precedents. The children of the Weston family--the successors--are determined in their unfolding by the character of their precedents, their parents. The irony of Beverly invoking drink as his "Higher Power" (reversing the language of recovery) points toward the larger irony of the positioning of the parental sins as the creative, the generative, force of the Weston family (reversing the God/sin equation). Something is rotten at the core of the family--and, Tracy may be suggesting in August, something is rotten at the core of our American identity. That "something" has everything to do with our Native American family--a family in which the patriarchal force is killed in service to our thirst for our own dissolution. It is fitting that the Weston parents have chosen drink and drugs as the coping mechanism for their sorrow (a sorrow precipitated by their own unhappy childhoods). Drink and drugs are the agents of unconsciousness, the tools for forgetting, the medication for a pain that is chronic. And, we see, drink and drugs become the agents for the continuation of that pain: they allow Beverly and Violet to turn inward, to ignore the needs of their children and to dull them to the cruelty of their words and actions. August: Osage County is a deeply gratifying and rich exploration of this one, multi-generational family, the Westons. Articulated with the family of Johnna, it shimmers with the metaphorical import of THE American family: a family wounded (and wounding) at its heart and committed to forgetting its painful past. The great pleasure of the play is its truthful mining of the insanities and complexities of family. In the insanities are, too, riotous humor, surprising gestures of love and loyalty, and a deep sympathy for our human failings. It is an honor to give this play to you. It has been crafted and is animated by the home team--our ensemble, our artistic staff, the rich talents of our Chicago and visiting theater artists. We undertake a play of this scale and ambition for an audience that has demonstrated an appetite for the big work--relevant themes, complex psychologies, and interpretive challenges. Many thanks for your acumen and courage in creating, with us, a theater that speaks to how we live now.