Tracy Letts's August: Osage County at the Old Globe

Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County turns Chekhov’s Three Sisters inside out.
  • Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County turns Chekhov’s Three Sisters inside out.

In the dead of summer, temperatures in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, reach triple digits, with the humidity not far behind. The town, 60 miles north of Tulsa, near the Kansas border, lies along Tornado Alley. But in the summer no air circulates.

The title of Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize–winning August: Osage County calls immediate attention to the weather. A first glimpse at the set for the Old Globe’s production raises the thermometer even more. Beverly and Violet Weston live in a 100-year-old, three-story manse. The set takes up almost the entire stage. Books, journals, newspapers, and household stuff lie scattered about, as if a mini-tornado harrowed the place and the Westons have yet to spruce things up.

That might be true except for the windows. Duct tape seals each with black shades. This isn’t a home, it’s a hothouse. “My wife is cold-blooded,” Beverly tells a prospective housekeeper, “and not just in the metaphorical sense. She does not believe in air-conditioning.”

Beverly’s a poet. Or was. He wrote Meadowlark in the 1960s (when they still “published poetry in hardback”). He won prestigious awards and a teaching position. Now he worships a “higher power,” he says, raising a half-full — or, more likely, half-empty — bottle of whiskey. And Violet? Her first words are a jumble that sounds like “son of a bitch,” though she’s ingested so many pills your guess is as good as Beverly’s. So, he drinks and she takes pills. This explains, he says, why “the maintenance of traditional American routine” has become so “burdensome.”

August: Osage County is one of the finest American plays in a long time. Given Letts’s previous efforts — the thrillers Bug and Killer Joe — it came as a surprise when it premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 2007. It’s a three-act epic about a nuked nuclear family.

It was also a surprise that the Old Globe Theatre, which has tended toward much milder fare of late — Boeing, Boeing, anyone? — would stage such a theatrical blast furnace. Credit to the Globe for bringing Osage to San Diego, and credit to director Sam Gold and a remarkable cast not only for one of the most polished opening nights in memory but also for packing the house with the quirky flow of life.

It’s hard to know how to behave at a funeral. There are no rehearsals. Emotions brim and sometimes spew or become swallowed in ungainly lumps. For the Westons, even before Beverly stopped musing about suicidal American poets and disappeared, family life always resembled a funeral. His absence intensified the dynamic.

Two of his three daughters have stayed away for years: Barbara in Colorado with philandering husband Bill and dope-toking daughter Jean; Karen in Florida, where she may have found true love. Dutiful Ivy has remained at home. The three sisters — which turn Chekhov’s Three Sisters inside out — haven’t kept in touch.

In the name of love, Violet has ruled this roost. Her family knows that, depending on her mood and on how much air she allows for others, they must either stifle emotions or risk stifling wrath.

Chain-smoking (even though she has cancer of the mouth), at times pacing the floor in a skinny slip, Lois Markle makes Violet unforgettable. There is no actor here. Instead she’s an unleashed force who delights in lambasting her daughters with the truth. She’s a casebook study in psychological abuse. But — and here’s the amazing part — Markle (and Letts) also make her human. She has untold reasons why pills won’t squelch her suffering. She’s known all family secrets — many of the bombshell variety — and has had to keep them quiet for decades.

Daughter Barbara has an overall explanation. Northern Oklahoma isn’t the Midwest, she says. “This is the Plains, a state of mind...some spiritual affliction, like the blues.” Barbara contends that the affliction has spread nationally, but with an unheard whimper, not a bang. “Dissipation,” she says, “is actually much worse than cataclysm.”

Since the ensemble cast is so uniformly excellent, it’s almost unfair to single out individuals. That said, Angela Reed’s Barbara is a marvel. She morphs almost literally into Violet before our eyes. As Barbara grabs control, her voice becomes more and more serrated, like her mother’s “cancer mouth.”

San Diego got a glimpse of Letts’s theatrical style when the Rep staged Superior Donuts, which jumped from cross-eyed farce to high drama in a jiff. Osage not only fills seven rooms and a porch with exposed nerves, it also generates enough laughs to qualify as a comedy. As when Barbara argues that we have a responsibility to something greater than ourselves, and disillusioned Ivy replies, “good luck with that.”

Robert Foxworth has had the good fortune to perform in both Osage and Superior Donuts locally. In Osage, he only appears in the prologue, but it takes someone of Foxworth’s stature to make Beverly become, in many ways, the play’s most complex being.

Chekhov’s three sisters never reach Moscow. For Lett’s trio, “Moscow” could be Denver, New York, and Miami. But given how the play bombards illusions, it’s probably best to say to each, “good luck with that.” ■

August: Osage County, by Tracy Letts.

Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park.

Directed by Sam Gold; cast: Robert Foxworth, Lois Markle, Kimberly Guerrero, Robin Pearson Rose, Carla Harting, Guy Boyd, Angela Reed, Joseph Adams, Ronete Levenson, Todd Cerveris, Kelly McAndrew, Robert Maffia, Haynes Thigpen; scenic design, David Zinn; costumes, Clint Ramos; lighting, Japhy Weideman; sound, Fitz Patton.

Playing through June 12; Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at 7:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and Sunday at 1:00 p.m. 619-234-5623.

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