Every family goes through dysfunction and even trauma, which is perhaps why, when we step outside of it, there's something undeniably funny about seeing those dynamics played out in art. We might be exasperated or distraught in the midst of a situation where emotions run high and personalities clash, but later we can usually look back and laugh at the absurdity of it all.
This sort of cathartic humor is what makes Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County" both an incredibly funny play and one with a lot of depth and drama that touches a nerve with audiences. It's especially had an impact on the people involved in the Arkansas Repertory Theatre's new production of the play. Director Bob Hupp has held the rights to the work for a few years, and he is excited to have it close out a superb season for the Rep.
"There's a tremendous power to the story. It follows in the tradition of great American storytellers, and it's been a while since the Rep has had the joy of experiencing such a well-crafted American play," Hupp says.
"August: Osage County" places the audience in the middle of a crisis within the Weston family, in which patriarch Beverly Weston has gone missing. Beverly's wife, Violet, is in distress and their three daughters come home, along with their own families, to help.
With an abundance of conflicting personalities driven by Violet's relentlessness (cast members describe her character as a "Tasmanian Devil"), the play builds and blows up like a pressure cooker. Each family member brings his or her own personal baggage to the equation, all trapped inside the house and struggling to stay civil. "It's funny to see people put up a good front, to try to keep it together while everything is falling apart," says Kathy McCafferty, who plays Karen, the youngest of the three daughters.
As audiences watch the family unravel and reveal long-kept secrets, the play is not shy about approaching taboo subjects. "The button-pushing can get pretty extreme," says LeeAnne Hutchison, who plays Barbara, the oldest daughter. "It crosses boundaries that most people might not experience in their lifetime."
Despite the exaggerated nature of the drama, the characters are all still relatable. "You might not want to relate to these characters, but you find something within them that you see within yourself," McCafferty says.
The play is set in Oklahoma, which here is representative of the rural heartland of America. In this way it emphasizes the relatable nature of the characters, but also the notion that American culture can often push us to conceal the dark side of our nature. "Everyone has that fear of worrying, 'If people really knew me, they might not like me,' " says Cliff Baker, who plays Beverly.
It's important to note that while the film version received some criticism for missing a lot of the humor of the play, everyone involved is adamant that seeing it onstage is an entirely different and more enriching experience. Brenny Rabine, who plays Ivy, the middle daughter, says, "There's something about watching in a room with a few hundred people, like we had all just gone through Thanksgiving dinner together."
Michael McKenzie, who plays Barbara's husband, Bill, says the humor is based on the idea that comedy is tragedy that happens to someone else: "It's funny because you recognize and it and relate to it, but you're saying, 'Thank God that's not me.' "
The play's ensemble extends beyond just the cast: "It includes the entire production team," Baker says. Rabine says her discussions with the set designer gave her a deeper understanding of the play. Hupp calls the house where the play is set "the 14th character."
The house certainly takes on a life of its own, as it serves both as a puzzle box of secrets and as a prison of sorts, boxing in the characters and preventing them from avoiding conflict with one another.
Several cast members shared how watching the play for them was a life-changing experience. "We want to give that experience to everyone else," Hutchison says. "It's interesting to find the fine line where comedy and drama meet, and the dance across that line is challenging but rewarding."
"August: Osage County" runs from Friday, June 5, through Sunday, June 21, with Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday evening shows at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday shows at 8 p.m., and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. There will be an after-party Saturday, June 20, at Foster's, the Rep lounge, following the play. Tickets are available at therep.org.