The Bottom Line: Winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, Tracy Letts’ darkly comic drama August: Osage County is worthy of the praise it has received from critics and audiences. Hopefully the play will be embraced by college professors, for the text is rich with compelling characters and scintillating criticism of the modern American family.
August: Osage County is set on the plains of modern day, middle-class Oklahoma. The Weston family members are all intelligent, sensitive creatures who have the uncanny ability of making each other absolutely miserable. When the patriarch of the household mysteriously vanishes, the Weston clan gathers together to simultaneously support and attack one another.
Beverly Weston: Husband of Violet / Father to his three 40-something daughters. A one-time world class poet and full-time alcoholic. Polite, soulful, melancholy, and ultimately suicidal.
Violet Weston: The devious matriarch. She has lost her husband. She is addicted to painkillers (and any other pill she can pop). She suffers from cancer of the mouth. But that doesn’t stop her from spewing her cynicism or her hilariously sinister insults.
Barbara Fordham: The eldest daughter. In many ways, Barbara is the strongest and most sympathetic character. Throughout the play she tries to gain control of her chaotic mother, her dilapidated marriage, and her pot-smoking 14 year old daughter.
Ivy Weston: The middle daughter. A quiet librarian, stereotypically mousy. Ivy has stayed close to home, unlike the other errant Weston sisters. This means Ivy has had to endure the acid tongue of her mother. She has been maintaining a secret love affair with her first cousin. (And if you think that sounds like a Jerry Springer episode, just wait till you read Act Three!)
Karen Weston: The youngest daughter. She claims to have been unhappy her entire adult life, prompting her to move away from the family and reside in Florida. However, she returns to the Weston home bringing along a fiancé in tow – a successful 50 year old business man who, unbeknownst to Karen, turns out to by the most loathsome character within the play.
Johnna Monevata: The Native-American live-in housekeeper. She is hired by Beverly just days before his disappearance. She may not have many lines, but she is the most compassionate and morally grounded of all the characters. She claims to stay in the caustic household simply because she needs the job. Yet, there are times when she swoops in like a warrior-angel, saving characters from despair and destruction.
Themes: What Do We Learn from August: Osage County?
Many messages are conveyed throughout the play. Depending on how deep a reader digs, all sorts of issues can be summoned up. For example, it is no accident that the housekeeper is Native American and that the Caucasian characters tip-toe around their cultural differences. There is a walking-on-eggshells sort of tension that seems to stem from the injustices that happened in Oklahoma over a century ago. A post-colonialist critic could write an entire paper on that alone.
However, most of the play’s themes are derived from the male and female archetypes found in August: Osage County.
Mothers and Daughters:
In Tracy Letts’ play, Mothers and daughters are more likely to verbally and physically abuse one another rather than exhibit kindness. In Act One, Violet continually asks for her eldest daughter. She depends on Barbara’s emotional strength during this family crisis. Yet, at the same time, Violet cruelly points out Barbara’s advancing age, her evaporated beauty, and her failed marriage – all issues that Barbara wishes to be left unspoken. Barbara responds by putting a stop to her mother’s pill addiction. She rallies the rest of the family into intervention mode. By this might be less of tough-love and more of a power-play. During Act Two’s climactic “family dinner from hell,” Barbara throttles her mother and then declares, “You don’t get it, do you? I’M RUNNING THINGS NOW!”
Two Types of Husbands:
If August: Osage count is a reflection of reality, then there are two types of husbands: A) Docile and unmotivated. B) Philandering and unreliable. Violet’s missing husband, Beverly Weston appears briefly, only during the play’s beginning. But in that scene, the audience learns that Beverly has long since ceased to communicate with his wife in a healthy manner. Instead, he accepts that she is a drug addict. In turn, he drinks himself into a spiritual coma, becoming a very docile husband whose passion for life has fizzled out decades ago.
Beverly’s brother-in-law, Charles, is another timid male character. He tolerates his unpleasant wife for almost forty years before he finally puts his foot down, and even then he’s rather polite about his uprising. He can’t understand why the Weston family is so vicious toward each other. But the audience can’t understand why Charles has stayed around for so long!
His son, Little Charles is a 37-year old couch potato. He represents another example of an unmotivated male. But for some reason, his cousin/lover Ivy finds him heroic” despite his simple-minded lethargy. Perhaps she admires him so much because he presents a sharp contrast to the more devious male characters: Bill (Barbara’s husband - the college professor who sleeps with his students) represents middle aged men who want to feel more desirable so they abandon their wives for younger women. Steve (Karen’s fiancé) represents the sociopath-type guys that prey on the young and naïve.
What Goes Around Comes Around
Most of the characters dread the notion of living alone yet they violently resist intimacy, and most seem doomed to a sad, solitary existence. The final lesson is harsh but simple: Be a good person or you’ll taste nothing but your own poison.