Take a look downtown...toward the Alley Theatre specifically. Do you see smoke? You should. Because Tracy Letts' August: Osage County is setting that venerable institution ablaze. I think the street signs are melting. This is the play that ran riot on Broadway and won the Tony Award for Best Play and then, as icing, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (2008), as well as multiple subsidiary accolades. It deserves all the oohing and ahhing, because it's the best new work in, what, 10 years? Maybe. I can't think of another play in recent memory that brings theater so alive. You see a play like this and you smile--there is a future for live theater.
August is a family saga, a big one with a cast of 13, which is DeMillean for theater these days. And it's long, three-hours-plus long, but it goes by in an instant, because Letts fills his grandiose canvas with some of the most dysfunctional characters to grace a stage. If you know his Bug or Killer Joe, you know what crazies he can conjure who make you squirm in discomfort. Here, it's Violet, the matriarch of the Weston clan, who is the incredible one. She's a classic pill popper, while Dad's a classic alcoholic. In drama, who could ask for anything more? But dad disappears during Act One -- gone fishing, drunk? -- and it's Violet who gathers her clan together to comfort her until he returns. Comfort is the inoperative word, since her family stays as far away from her as possible. Not since Martha in Albee's classic Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf has there been such a wife, such a Gorgon, such a mother.
In some sort of heavenly retribution, Violet suffers from cancer of the mouth, which makes her pill-popping somewhat understandable. But nothing excuses how she uses that mouth. In comedy of the blackest shade imaginable, she excoriates her children, their children, their hapless fiancés, her own sister, her husband (when he's there and when he's not there). It's the role of a lifetime, and Broadway veteran Jennifer Harmon, making her Alley debut, is spectacular as she spews her venom around the room. She couldn't do any more damage if she used hydrochloric acid. Anyway, it's psychic damage. She's a master at inflicting it.
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Using soap opera, a bit of TV reality shows, and grand old theater past (Letts pays particular homage to O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night), Tracy Letts has fashioned a play for the ages. It'll have a long shelf life, since it's pickled in Johnny Walker and hazed with Percodan.
(August: Osage County runs through Sunday, March 13, 2011 on the Hubbard Stage at the Alley Theatre. Ticket information is available at www.alleytheatre.org, at the Alley Theatre Box Office, 615 Texas Avenue, or by calling 713.220.5700.)