August: Osage County is a seriously funny play about a seriously dysfunctional family. It’s hard to believe how many satisfying laughs can come from seeing incest, drug addiction, emotional abuse and suicide unfurl onstage. But it can be explained with one word: schadenfreude, the pleasure one derives from another person’s misfortune.
“We take a certain perverse glee in seeing other families unravel to see that ours aren’t as bad as we thought,” says Susan V. Booth, the Alliance Theatre’s Jennings Hertz, Jr. Artistic Director, who directs this production. “I hope this will afford a new threshold for how bad it can get.”
And the worse it gets onstage, the more the audience (and critics) seem to enjoy it. Written by Tracy Letts, August: Osage County, in 2008, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony Award for Best Play and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play. The New York Times called it “flat-out, no asterisks and without qualifications, the most exciting American play Broadway has seen in years.”
“It’s a dreamy actors’ play,” Booth explains. “There are 13 roles, and each one has serious meat on its bones. You don’t find that often. It is operatically pitched, and it’s old school capital-T theatre.”
Perhaps one reason why the roles are so richly drawn is because playwright Letts also acts, most famously with Chicago’s storied Steppenwolf Theatre Company, where he is an ensemble member. The Chicago Sun-Times has called Letts “an actor of such blistering intensity that you can almost feel the blood surging between his heart and brain.” He brought that passion to the Alliance Theatre stage during the 2003-2004 season, when he portrayed George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
Atlanta theatres have produced many of his plays, most recently Superior Donuts at Horizon Theatre Company. The graphic nature of his writing has earned him comparison to the filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, but Letts has said his true inspiration comes from Southern writers such as William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams.
“A colleague once described his work as Tennessee Williams on steroids,” Booth says. “It’s the human equivalent of a traffic accident in the same way that we all slow down and look. August: Osage County is a chance to look at one onstage.”
The Atlanta talent pool is so deep and skillful, Booth says, she could have cast the show handsomely many times over. But she had something specific ?in mind.
Each role is played by someone who brings considerable history and/or baggage from working in the tight-knit Atlanta theatre community. “I wanted people with pre-existing, professional dysfunctional relationships to bring to the table,” Booth explains with ?a chuckle.
The cast includes artistic directors or founders Del Hamilton (7 Stages), Richard Garner (Georgia Shakespeare) and Carolyn Cook (Théâtre du Rêve); Tess Malis Kincaid of Georgia Ensemble Theatre; Brenda Bynum, formerly of Theatre Emory; and such familiar Atlanta faces as Chris Kayser, Jill Jane Clements, Joe Knezevich, Bethany Anne Lind, Courtney Patterson, Diany Rodriguez, Andrew Benator and ?Bart Hansard.
During a recent family vacation, Booth found herself thinking about August: Osage County, and what she hopes the audience takes away from it. “I think we come to theater for a lot of reasons,” she muses. “To look for inspiration, to look for reminders of our own humanity … We also use it as a cautionary tale. I just got back from taking my child to Disney World. [There] I was confronted with the question of why people go on roller coasters. It’s terrifying. I, personally, get nausea. Why do we pay for the privilege of having the bejeezus scared out of us? This is one of those experiences.”