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A PILL FOR ALL SEASONS: KC Rep presents searing, funny, prize-winning family drama

The Westons of Oklahoma may not be your typical American family, but their crises are familiar to anyone who has followed American drama of the last century, from Eugene O’Neill to Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller to Edward Albee. Booze, drugs, divorce, depression, sexual depravity: The protagonists of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County live through it all, and they pull us into their dark world. From September 16th through October 9th at Spencer Theatre, the Kansas City Repertory Theatre presents Letts’ epic family saga, which won the Pulitzer and the Tony for Best Play in 2008 and was hailed by The New York Times as “the most exciting new American play Broadway has seen in years.” Directed by Rep artistic director Eric Rosenand associate director Kyle Hatley, it features a bevy of area actors including Merle Moores, Kip Niven, Cheryl Weaver, Manon Halliburton, Jennifer Mays, Craig Benton, Gary Neal Johnson, Kathleen Warfel, Vanessa Severo, Rusty Snearyand Katie Hall.

At the center of August are addiction and its corrosive effect on family relationships. Beverly Weston drinks, and his wife Violet pops pills: Both spend their lives in a half-haze that colors their perceptions of the goings-on of their three daughters – Barbara, Ivy and Karen – and their respective families and lovers. But Beverly vanishes after a brief Prologue, so it’s Violet’s addiction to prescription narcotics that becomes the center of this maelstrom – which comes to a head when the family gathers to fret over the patriarch’s curious disappearance. “Addiction stories are riveting because they’re dramatic – the sense of struggle against something that you can’t control and controls you, and destroys lives around you,” says Eric, who is entering his fourth season at the Rep. “In our cultural imagination it’s certainly ‘of the moment.’ It makes for a good story. I don’t mean to make light of it, because it’s a big problem. But it’s a good engine: It can give the play its spark, its reason for being a play.” For drama to work, “characters have to have both a need and a conflict, and addiction is a great source of both.”

Eric knew Tracy during his years at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and remembers him as a “brilliant actor and playwright with a wicked sense of humor.” He recalls his experience with August during its first run at the Steppenwolf in the summer of 2007 as “one of the greatest nights of my life in the theater.” (The play went on to highly successful runs on Broadway and in London.) At the end of Act 2, he recalls, when Violet’s eldest daughter challenges her drug-addled mother and begins to turn the tide, “people were cheering and standing up. It was more like being at a sporting event than at the theater, and I remember being electrified by that. I’d never seen a play in which an audience is as engaged as when somebody scores a touchdown, or shoots a basket from the three-point line.”

Tracy’s wicked sense of humor is found throughout August, and despite the play’s murky dealings we find ourselves laughing heartily – at the audacity of the characters, yes, but also perhaps at a sense of familiarity. “So many people come up to us and say, ‘That’s my family,’ ” Tracy told the London Times. “They recognize some of those behaviors in themselves. People even say, ‘That mother is me.’ What’s that about?” Indeed, we all know how dreaded family reunions can be – “like diving into the octopus tank at the aquarium,” as Robert Penn Warren writes, in a quote Letts uses to preface his play. “No matter now loving and great your family is, there’s going to be some crazy fight,” Eric says, “and if the family is even a little dysfunctional, you’re going to become the person you were at 16 or 18. … We all know what that feels like.” Eric says the humor in August is essential to its impact. “In the auditions we could not stop laughing – my stomach was hurting I was laughing so hard,” he says. “And then you’re horrified. I think that’s what the best humor is: We’re laughing at something that scares us, and so its humor is part of the strategy of why it works. If it wasn’t funny it would be really tedious.”

By using local actors who have worked together over the years, Eric says he hoped to re-create the sense of ensemble that is one of the Steppenwolf’s hallmarks. “I can’t imagine that we would have found a better cast if we’d cast it out of Chicago or New York,” he says. “Everyone just sort of gets it.” Part of the fun is that “most of these actors have been playing siblings, lovers, husbands, wives, mothers and sons to each other for years. … There’s a level of trust that comes from that. You have to kind of ‘put it out there’ to do this play, and it brings some dark stuff up. Getting a bunch of strangers together would make it a lot harder.” Local actors, he says, “already have that shorthand with each other.”

Is there a glimmer of hope in all of August’s darkness? Well yes, but to reveal it would be to give away too much. Suffice it to say that through sheer force of will one of the characters, by going through hell and losing everything, finds a way out of the tawdriness. And yes, despite all the turmoil and viciousness, by the end of Tracy’s play we find ourselves actually liking the central characters – for the same reasons we grow fond of Miller’s Willy Loman or Albee’s George and Martha. They are, like us, all too human, all too susceptible to familiar frailties. “These characters don’t do the right thing, they do the real thing,” Eric says. “Even in a soap-operatic moment, no one can moralize and say, Oh here’s the moral of the story. They just react, they behave. They behave like people that we might know.”

August: Osage County is in previews from September 16th; the regular run begins on September 23rd, at the Spencer Theatre on the UMKC campus. For tickets call 816-235-2700 or go to www.kcrep.org.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net.

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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