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Tracy Letts, after the dog days of 'August: Osage County'

As the national tour comes to L.A., the Pulitzer-winning playwright has a lighter work headed to Broadway and a Chicago production to star in.

September 06, 2009|Chris Jones | Jones is drama critic of the Chicago Tribune.

CHICAGO — When playwright Tracy Letts walked into New York rehearsals for the touring production of his "August: Osage County" earlier this summer, he did not find the fellow Steppenwolf Theatre Company ensemble members who blew away brittle New York aesthetes with their gale-force, Chicago-style acting in Letts' devastating Broadway play. Although a few of the touring cast members -- mostly notably, the widely acclaimed Estelle Parsons -- had done the show as Broadway replacements during the long New York run, and many have ties to both Letts and other Chicago theaters, the famously dysfunctional Westons of Oklahoma are being played on the road by none of the original cast.

"I really have to say," Letts says over lunch, a devilish grin on his face, "I was kind of relieved not to be looking across the table at the same exhausted faces."

Even though he had written his Pulitzer Prize-winning play especially for them. Even though he knew where most of the bodies were buried in the infamously complex web of relationships -- professional, romantic, always personal -- that have been part of the Steppenwolf gestalt ever since Gary Sinise, Jeff Perry and Terry Kinney founded this most famous of Chicago theaters in 1974 and dragged it to fame, longevity and international acclaim by the sweat of their own ambition. Letts was happy to see some gung-ho fresh meat taking his play out west.

"August: Osage County," which premiered to critical acclaim in Chicago during the summer of 2007 and opens at the Ahmanson Theatre on Sept. 9, is the semiautobiographical story of three adult, angst-laden sisters who return home to their pill-popping mother's house of emotional horrors following the mysterious disappearance of their father, a sometime writer and constant drinker. A symphony of domestic violence ensues, conducted by the caustically manipulative Violet Weston, who knows how to reduce her hapless family to self-doubting blubber on the Plains.

Right from the Chicago premiere, there has been lively debate between those who see the play as a weighty and profound masterpiece of American familial dysfunction, fully worthy of comparison to "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" or "Long Day's Journey Into Night," and those who see it more as a juicily entertaining pseudo-memoir and potboiler, more comparable to the work of Lillian Hellman or even Quentin Tarantino. Still, it's hard to overstate the demonstrable force of an audience's response to this work. Despite its running time of almost three hours and 30 minutes, this jaw-dropping three-act opus has become one of the most critically and commercially successful American dramas of the modern era.

Director Anna D. Shapiro's Steppenwolf production transferred to Broadway and ran for 648 performances, winning five Tony Awards, including best play. It won Letts a Pulitzer Prize. It settled easily on the stage of the National Theatre in London, original Chicago cast mostly intact and the British audience open-mouthed. Theatre Communications Group, the publisher of Letts' script, says it has sold tens of thousands of copies at lightning speed. And the 2011 movie version -- Letts has already turned in the second draft of his screenplay to Jean Doumanian Productions -- has fired up such a broad swath of the Hollywood A-list, Meryl Streep and all, that predicting which megawatt star will end up playing which role has become a parlor game.

But by virtue of its intensity, its longevity, the toxic passive-aggressive manipulations of its characters, and a rough set of real-life circumstances involving uprooting the lives of middle-age and crotchety Chicago actors, opening in the middle of a 2007 Broadway stagehands strike, and the death of the playwright's father (an original cast member), "August: Osage County" extracted a psychic toll on everyone involved.

"If you had told me I had to go back to that rehearsal table again," says Amy Morton, a Tony nominee for her work as Barb Weston, the eldest sister, and now a directing staffer on the tour, "I would have been like, 'Are you kidding me?' That play was so physically and emotionally grueling. I was inside that woman for far too long."

Anyone who saw Letts at the many award ceremonies during the spring and summer of 2008 saw a man wrestling with the rush of conflicted emotion. For an Oklahoma-raised actor-writer who'd hitherto been known for edgy, fringe-style plays such as "Bug" and "Killer Joe," and who had subsequently spent a number of years struggling to find sufficiently satisfying acting or writing work in Los Angeles, there was the headiness of sudden and colossal mainstream success as a playwright, combined with the equally sudden shock of the death of his father from lung cancer, a battle fought in part on a Broadway stage. Dennis Letts, the first actor to play the fallen patriarch Beverly Weston, died in February 2008, just a couple of months into the Broadway run.

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