UPDATE: The Oregonian’s Marty Hughley has posted a terrific, insightful review of of “August: Osage County” on Oregon Live. Give it a read.
There are many wonderful things about Steppenwolf Theatre‘s touring production of Tracy Letts‘ August: Osage County, which opened Tuesday night at Keller Auditorium as part of Portland Opera’s Broadway Across America series. One of them was not the ending.
I don’t mean the ending onstage, when actress DeLanna Studi cradled the remarkable Estelle Parsons in her lap on an attic bed and crooned to her as the lights went down.
I mean the stampede in the audience to beat the crowd and get out the door quick, as if it were late in the third quarter of a 55-0 football game and all that mattered was getting out of the stadium parking lot and hitting the freeway before 30,000 other cars followed suit.
The rush began during that final fade, when the proper response was to sit still and let the emotional accumulation of this three-and-a-half-hour American journey sink in. It hit full throttle when the lights came up for cattle call … I mean, curtain call. As many in the audience were rising to their feet to applaud the work of this talented company of actors, many others were bumping and bruising their ways to the aisles, trodding on toes, trailing their belongings, urging their fellow longhorns on so they could get out first. Show’s over. Drinks and bathrooms calling.
Whether it stems from ignorance or plain old selfishness, this is rude.
The reality is this: What performers offer an audience is a gift. Sometimes it’s a cheap and hastily wrapped afterthought. Most of the time, whether the audience ends up liking it or not, the gift is deeply felt and carefully thought out, coming at some expense from the heart.
In the case of the 13 performers in August: Osage County, it’s also a grueling physical feat. Parsons, who stars as the fierce and lonely drug-addled family matriarch, Violet Weston, undergoes a start-and-stop endurance test of focus and intensity that would give a college linebacker pause. She’s a month shy of 82 years old.
That gift must be acknowledged. Sure, you bought your ticket. That’s wonderful. It’s not enough. The five minutes (tops) it costs you to stay in your place during curtain call is a matter of courtesy and respect. And appreciation.
I don’t mean you need to leap to your feet and whistle. I’ve made fun of Portland’s penchant for the “rolling ovation,” in which a few people stand and eventually everyone else struggles up, too, on the theory that they’re supposed to. A standing ovation should be spontaneous and heartfelt: You rise and applaud because you are moved. That doesn’t always happen.
But except in rare cases, when the performers have dishonored their craft not through failure but through lack of effort, every performer deserves the respect of a sincere “thank you” at the end of a show. It’s common courtesy — or ought to be. It shows appreciation not just for the performers but also for the tradition of the theater: for a way of life and a way of work. In a basic way, it shows respect for yourself. To borrow a line from Arthur Miller, attention must be paid.
So pay it, please. Freely and gladly. Honor the givers. Appreciate the gift.
And now, on with the show.
If you can get there, go. It runs through Sunday. There was a time when the touring Broadway business was a cynical racket, fobbing off cheap copies of the originals with an occasional over-the-hill star (often of the television sit-com variety) thrown in. That rarely happens anymore. It’s certainly not the case here. Parsons is the star because the role makes her the star, and because she delivers a fine performance that’s of a piece with what her fellow actors are doing. This is a company of actors, and that’s what theater means.
You could wish August were in the 900-seat Newmark Theatre instead of the 3,000-seat Keller. Artistically, it would be perfect. The expensive business of touring demands the larger hall, which is a compromise.
But this fine production largely overcomes it. A smaller space would quicken the emotion and bring down the physical style a little. That’s the ideal. It would mean the company settling in for a two- or three-month run, and economically that’s not going to happen in Portland: The potential audience is too small.
I’m not a huge fan of Letts’ plays Bug and Killer Joe, or of his adaptation of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters for Portland’s Artists Rep, a version that was clean and competent but a little blunt: I prefer my Chekhov allusive and elusive. (Besides, as someone in the company noted wryly when Artists Rep was waiting for Letts to deliver his script, Letts had already written his adaptation of The Three Sisters: It’s called August: Osage County.)
August is on a different level entirely. Structurally and thematically it’s in the grand American tradition of American realist family dramas. (Realism isn’t real, of course: It’s a heightened style that’s extremely difficult to master.) Without stealing from them, Letts echoes the tradition of Sam Shepard, Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill — particularly, in the cases of Shepard and Albee, in his showman’s blend of ghastly comedy and the heartwrenching pain of families gone wrong. I don’t sense the emotional and cultural richness of the best of August Wilson or these other masters, but in this play Letts clearly approaches that league.
Letts is an actor, and for a playwright that’s often a great advantage. You know how the theater works. You can get your performers on and off stage at the right time and for maximum effect. And you know what actors need: those juicy moments, the payoffs for all the quiet, hard ensemble work. Except for Johnna, the curiously underdeveloped Native American housekeeper (and to a lesser extent Deon, the sheriff), every character is rewarded with at least one of those Moments. You could argue that the acting’s better than the play, except you don’t get acting this good unless the playwright’s made it possible.
Whether you agree with every choice the performers and director Anna D. Shapiro make, this is full-tilt, ample acting, fleshed out in a way we don’t see often enough. No weak links here, and everyone will have their own favorites.
Parsons is wonderful. So is Shannon Cochran as her eldest, chip-off-the-block daughter Barbara, whose coarse and laceratingly funny tongue gets to wrap around some of the show’s best lines. (Of her husband, a college prof who’s having an affair with one of his students, she remarks caustically that he’s “porking Pippi Longstocking.”) For that matter, Jeff Still as the wayward husband is enormously sympathetic. And Paul Vincent O’Connor, whom some of you will remember from his many years at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, has a couple of terrific payoffs: one a discussion of the dangers and rewards of eating meat; the other of the good old-fashioned turning-of-the-worm variety.
Did I not mention much about theme and plot? Oh, well. Go see for yourself.
PHOTOS, from top:
- Stampede, Mural, Odessa, Texas, Post Office, Federal Works Agency.
- Clockwise from left: Angelica Torn, Libby George & Paul Vincent Oâ€™Connor. Photo: Robert J. Saferstein
- Lake Oswego High grad Laurence Lau as a hail-fellow-unwell-met and Emily Kinney as a teen with a taste for pot. Photo: Robert J. Saferstein
- A huge old house of horrors: The set for “August: Osage County,” where an American family decomposes before our eyes. Photo: Robert J. Saferstein