Often compared to Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County is an exploration of yet another dysfunctional family, an epic play that also was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
It premiered in 2007 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, where Letts is a company member and resident playwright. It quickly transferred to Broadway, where it won the Tony Award, was then adapted into a movie in 2013 and is now being produced at Palm Beach Dramaworks, where it opens March 31.
A fictional account of Sooner State-born Letts’s own family, the darkly comic play centers on a sudden family reunion following the disappearance of the clan’s patriarch, Beverly Weston. His soon-to-be declared widow Violet, a pill-popping drug addict, has recently been diagnosed with cancer. The last thing she needs is the return of her three grown daughters – Barbara, Ivy and Karen – with their various own family members in tow.
Making her Dramaworks debut as Violet is Sara Morsey, who says of her character, “She’s savage, she’s acid-tongued, she’s aggressive, she’s blunt. She’s grown up in such a background of poverty and neglect, abuse. She’s a really damaged person who now has cancer on top of it all and is trying to make a life for herself.
“I think she’s a disappointed person too, because there was a promise of great hope and upward mobility in this Oklahoma family,” says Morsey. “But things got really bumpy and rough. It’s been a bumpy ride for her and it is going to get bumpier.”
Playing Violet’s eldest daughter Barbara will be Kathy McCafferty, whom Dramaworks audiences have seen in The Little Foxes, Streetcar Named Desire and Outside Mullingar. As she says of her Osage County character, “She’s the typical oldest child in that she has had to co-parent her younger siblings and help take care of her parents. I think she has very carefully crafted her adult life in opposition to her parents.”
Despite her friction with her mother, Barbara has much in common with Violet. But, says McCafferty, “I don’t think she sees that. I think everyone else sees that. That’s sort of the journey of the play. And, I think, over the course of time she has been drawn home to help with various crises. And when she comes home — as we all do, and I think this is the part where I hope audiences can relate — we believe we will go home and still be who we are in our normal lives and not be drawn back into family dynamics. Barbara spends the whole play, I believe, trying to hold onto who she has tried to become in the world, away from her family.”
Despite the dire situation the Westons find themselves in, playwright Letts manages to inject the play with humor. “I think that’s the secret weapon of this play. I just think very few people pull off a classic three-act structure that is funny,” says McCafferty. “If you compare this to ‘Long Day’s Journey into Night’ or to a Greek tragedy, I feel this play is a Greek tragedy with humor.”
Asked why it deserves a Pulitzer Prize, Morsey responds, “The scope of the play, the depth of the characters. The structure of the play I think is amazing. I don’t know any other play that’s structured like this. It’s all in this one house and it’s all happening right at the same time.”
“It’s just brilliantly crafted,” adds McCafferty. “I don’t think there’s anything in there accidentally. The timing, the way it moves from start to finish is just brilliant.”
Asked if Letts intends the audience to identify with the Westons or merely be relieved that their family is not like them, McCafferty says, “I think the answer is both. My hope as a performer is that you’ll be willing to take the ride with me and that you have some moments of understanding me. You don’t have to like me, but I hope that at some point you understand the struggle of what the character is going through.”
“I think if you grew up anywhere in Middle America you’ve got to identify if you’re honest with yourself,” says Morsey. “I certainly identified pretty quick.
“Because it is a great human interest story. I think people do find themselves in it. You’re not going to get bored. It is funny, but there’s a lot of human emotion in it. You are going to feel like you can’t believe what you saw and you’re going to be so glad that you did,”
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Friday, March 31 – Sunday, April 16. $84, 561-514-4042 or visit www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.