Playwright Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning family-trauma drama is set in Oklahoma, but, just to be clear, this is not the all-singing, all-dancing version of the Sooner State. It’s the all-scathing, all-harrowing, all-emotionally suffering alternative.
So, it’s fortunate that “August: Osage County” is so often wickedly, bitterly, acerbically funny as well.
Letts’ story, which debuted at Steppenwolf Theatre before transferring to its 2007 Tony-winning Broadway run, concerns several generations of the extraordinarily unhappy Weston family. To whom we are given a brief introduction as kindly family patriarch Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) briefs the caretaker he has hired to look after his wife Violet (Meryl Streep), who has cancer of the mouth — a symbolic affliction in her case, given her poisonous tongue. Bev’s a soft-spoken, alcoholic, retirement-age poet and Vi’s a sardonic, foul-mouthed, pain pill-addicted bully. All of the children, except one, have run as far away as they can go.
That’s the cheery status quo until Beverly abruptly disappears and drowns himself, precipitating a highly reluctant family reunion. Soon, Vi’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper) the Weston daughters Ivy, Karen and Barbara (Julianne Nicholson, Juliette Lewis and Julia Roberts) and their nervous significant others have gathered for the search — then the funeral. And Vi is making up for lost time by inflicting narcotized abuse on the children she so rarely has the chance to see.
Vi is a scenery-chewing, skull-crusher of a role, so it’s not surprising that Streep sinks all 32 teeth (and 10 claws) into her, eliciting a certain amount of sympathy for the obviously damaged character without diluting her essential nastiness. Vi is so overbearing, in fact, that “August” might be too painful to sit through if it weren’t for the presence of her embittered, equally tough daughter Barbara (Roberts, also a powerhouse) — whose greatest fear, as her own marriage slowly unravels, is that she might turn out to be her mother. Barbara gives as good as she gets, leading to a power shift that might have been the climax of any normal-scale drama. But there’s still a lot more anguish to be uncorked in Osage County.
You could make a case for this movie version feeling a little stage-bound from time to time, but when the dialogue’s this good, who cares? You might also make a case for the whole thing being gussied up soap opera as one explosive Weston family secret after another is revealed. “August” certainly doesn’t play that way, though, thanks to terrific writing by Letts, who taps into themes that might remind you of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” or “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” — and gives them comparable stature. And also manages to go about it wittily, thanks to the Weston’s penchant for taking verbal shots at each other — sometimes even as a sign of affection. “You look like a lesbian,” Vi remarks to her daughter Ivy early on, in the context of telling her she might be able to find a man if she’d wear a little makeup. And Ivy smiles because that’s Vi at her sweetest.
The Westons also have a nice way with the occasional philosophical remark that rings deeply true. As when Mattie Fae, after one of the story’s more shocking and sorrowful revelations, says “Thank God, we can’t tell the future; we’d never get out of bed.”
Mattie Fae, you said a mouthful.