Review: "August: Osage County" is the Great American (Dysfunctional Family) Drama.

Share story

Theater review |

The ghosts of many other plays hover over the 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage County.” This searing, explosive (and Tony-winning) tragicomedy by Tracy Letts is making its Seattle debut on a national tour stop at the Paramount Theatre.

For as did O’Neill, Miller, Albee and other Broadway titans, Letts has written his own epic version of the Great American Dysfunctional Family Drama.

Yet the savage humor he injects, and his vision of the Great Plains as a toxic waste dump of failed dreams and desires, is all Letts’ own. And in an engrossing 3 ½-hour marathon (with a few miking glitches on opening night), he chronicles one clan’s sins — alcoholism, drug addiction, incest and suicide, for starters — with a profane frankness only possible (on Broadway at least) today.

On Todd Rosenthal’s magnificent, three-story dollhouse of a set (nod to Ibsen), director Anna D. Shapiro and a splendid acting ensemble make shameless voyeurs of us all. When the closet doors start blasting off, and the skeletons of matriarch Violet Weston and brood tumble out, we’re hooked.

In her masterful turn as a chain-smoking, cancer-riddled, drug-dependent Violet, Estelle Parsons is a one-woman firing squad. She’s already destroyed herself. Now she’s reloading to take down her kin. Dramaturgically, that requires a family reunion. And the vanishing of her kinder, gentler (and alcoholic) poet husband Beverly Weston (Jon DeVries), provides one.

It is warily attended by Violet’s yappy sister Mattie Fae (Libby George); Violet’s daughters — caustic Barbara (Shannon Cochran), ditsy Karen (Amy Warren) and stoical Ivy (Angelica Torn); and their own problematic mates and kids.

And once the rage and bile starts flowing, with the booze, the confrontations and confessions follow. (Nod to Albee.)

Letts’ flair for grotesque characters and macabre humor anchored his earlier plays (“Killer Joe,” “The Bug”), set in “white trash” Oklahoma. But laughs scored off pathetic losers can feel cheap and glib.

His superb comic instincts also get a workout in “August: Osage County,” which is peppered with hilarious, venomous (and unprintable) insults and retorts.

But Letts digs deeper here, into his own Oklahoma roots, to portray a middle-class family of academics. And he reaches higher, to contextualize their suffering in an Old West of bitter disillusionment, bequeathed from a hardened, bitter “greatest” generation to its conflicted, scattered offspring.

A somewhat romanticized Oklahoma is evoked by Johnna (DeLanna Studi), a serene Native American housekeeper who brings a bit of calm into the Weston war zone.

And there is empathy for the more loving, vulnerable relations — Barbara’s cheeky teenage daughter (Emily Kinney) and Mattie’s tolerant husband and son (played by veteran Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor Paul Vincent O’Connor, and Stephen Riley Key).

Even Parson’s richly textured Violet — in her semi-coherent states, and even her shrewish ones — snags our pity. Violet is hell on wheels. But she’s another motherless child, too.

Misha Berson: