The Difference Between Observing and Exploring

The Pulitzer Prize winning play August: Osage County tells the story of a family gathering at its homestead in rural Oklahoma following the sudden disappearance of the pater familias. The three daughters of the dispersed Weston family gather about their fully distracted and less than distraught (but almost certifiable) mother to determine what, if anything, might be done. The gathering quickly descends into a battle of wills as each life story is revealed.

The parallels with Eugene O’Neill’s epic, A Long Day’s Journey into Night, have been widely acknowledged. Both plays focus on a gathering of profoundly dysfunctional families, with the mother’s suffering from drug abuse and excessive alcohol use evident among the rest of the girls. In addition, both plays are quite long and each aspires to plumb the depths of the characters involved and their struggles with life’s vicissitudes. However, where O’Neill succeeds in forging a credible relationship between the audience and his flawed but human characters, Tracy Letts, the author of August: Osage County, misses the mark. The audience fails to understand, care about, or identify with the characters; while the play purports to explore the depths of a dysfunctional family, all it really does is describe one.

None of the characters — despite his or her travails — is curious enough to inquire into the human condition, with the sole exception of the father, who in the opening scene cynically quotes T.S. Eliot opining that “life is very long…” He promptly disappears to commit suicide.

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This failure to do more than profile the flawed characters prompts one to inquire as to why the playwright bothered to write this play at all. I suspect he thought that he was being profound, that the simple exposure of such dysfunction demonstrates wisdom and grand insight into what has led the characters to such sad and pitiable lives. For such an effort to succeed, however, the audience must be made to care about the characters and to either sympathize with their seemingly hopeless lives or hope for their redemption. These characters are cardboard cut-outs, and one does not develop any sympathy for them at all.

The characters display all the signs of contemporary adolescent narcissism, forcing one to wonder if the author suffers from the same thing? Who cares to simply witness such behavior for so long without ever wondering about the outcome on the characters?

That August: Osage County was showered with plaudits and awards speaks volumes about the current state of theater. It also helps explain the strength of the many revivals being visited upon us.

Cortes DeRussy attended a June 21, 2008 matinee performance at The Music Box Theatre in Chicago.


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