Choose not to swim: “August: Osage County” by Tracy Letts

How does a person jump in the water…and choose not to swim?

August: Osage County by Tracy Letts
152 pages, Theatre Communications Group, February 2008

Raise your hands: how many of you knew this was a play before it was a movie?

I’m hoping for lots of hands. That would make me all kinds of happy.

I was interested in seeing this movie, and friend D. (who is my MOST theatery friend – as in, he’s a talent agent, and lives in New York City, and knows the fanciest of people, but is still the same person I met when I was 17, somehow, which I love about him) said, “Please read or watch the play first, because it’s brilliant, and the movie has issues.” When D. talks, especially about theater, I listen.

(Also, I love Tracy Letts. Friend N. and I went to see the movie version of Bug years ago, and we were blown away, and I’ve read the play since. Letts has a way with ugly. He gets beneath the skin of things and shows us what we’re afraid of seeing, or what we avert our eyes from. And I love him for that. I’d recommend you read the play of Bug, but the movie’s not a bad choice, either. Fairly faithful and independent enough that it was able to keep some of the flavor that was intended.)

On the surface, everything’s very middle-class-solid in the Weston house. (I’d love to see this onstage; the set directions make it seem so beautifully shabbily grand.) We meet Beverly, the patriarch, and Violet, his wife; Beverly’s an alcoholic poet (ah, yes, I’ve known a few of those…) and Violet’s dying of cancer and has a mean pill addiction. When Beverly disappears, their children and extended family show up to provide support for Violet, and we meet the rest of the family: Beverly and Violet’s three children, Ivy, Barbara, and Karen, and their respective spouses, fiancés, and children, as well as Violet’s sister and brother-in-law and their son.

Family reunions. Nothing like them, right? Gather around the home fires, which we’ve kept burning for you, kiddos, and we’ll tell you a story, but probably not the one you want to hear; not the one about how much we miss you, how amazing you were as a child, and how special you are to us, but the one about old wounds that have festered, old secrets kept that are just coming to light, and how when you left, you really abandoned us, and that’s never been far from our minds. It may not be a story you want to hear, but it’s a story, by God, you’ll listen to. You’re back home, and you’ll do as you’re told.

This is a brilliant play. Better have been; damn thing won a Pulitzer. I’m really curious about the movie, but will wait for DVD; the version that now lives in my head is better than any movie version that could exist (and, although I love him? Benedict Cumberbatch is not at all right for the part in which he was cast. The women were cast well, I think, but Cumberbatch as a bumbling Red-State screw-up who still lives at home and watches a lot of trash television? I’m sorry. Not with THOSE cheekbones. Man looks like a beautiful alien statue come to life. It just doesn’t work.)

(Also, for those of you that love poetry, there’s poetry in here. And some beautiful, beautiful writing. Letts is an amazing writer.)

If you see the movie, please give the play a read, too, and compare the two; not only will you be reading a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, you’ll have something to talk about at parties. It’ll make you seem super-intelligent. “Ah, yes, but have you read the play of August: Osage County? I don’t know that Streep made the choices Letts intended in her portrayal of Violet, although I won’t fault her acting; the woman is, as always, flawless.” Right? You’re totally going home with the hot librarian chick/fella after THAT party! And you have me to thank!



  1. Grace @ Cultural Life

    I confess that I didn’t know that it was a play before a movie. I haven’t read the play but I went to see the movie a couple of weeks ago. Although it is very dark (my sister, who I saw it with, walked out about two thirds of the way through! But she is pregnant at the moment and highly sensitive), I thought Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts were really compelling to watch. It’s not an easy movie to watch — very intense — but I can see why many people are applauding it. I’d definitely be interested in seeing a stage version of it.

    • lucysfootball

      I’m glad it was still dark. The play is VERY dark. (Which is my favorite type of play – or movie, or television show, or book, actually.) I’m DYING to see it onstage, but it’s a big show (set-wise, anyway) and would be hard for most of our community theaters here to do. I’m hoping our one downtown theater, which usually gets the newer, bigger works, will snap it up when it becomes available. I’ll be first in line buying a ticket, if so.

  2. Cathy746books

    I really love the play, I’ve only read it, not seen it and because I love it so much, I will probaby be pretty hard on the movie. I have been disappointed in some of the casting (Ewan McGregor? Really?) and am ambivalent towards Roberts, but Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch and Margo Martindale make up for it.
    I’ve found the trailers interesting too. I showed my husband one that was focused on redemption and family love and his reaction was ‘Nope. Not watching that.’ Then I found an alternative trailer focusing on the vicious, hilarious interactions and he changed his mind completely!

    • lucysfootball

      Ewan is an odd choice, as well. I love him – he’s seriously one of my top actors of all time – but I don’t know about him in this movie. He just doesn’t fit, somehow. Chris Cooper, YES. Perfect. And Margo Martindale as well.

      That’s exactly what D. said – they focused on the wrong things, and dumbed it down. I’m a little worried about it, so I’m definitely waiting until it comes out on DVD so I can mock, if need be, from the comfort of my own home. (That’s frowned upon in the movie theater, for some reason…)

  3. becomingcliche

    I have been unplugged from the world for so long that I didn’t know that Benedict had such a role coming up. “An alien statue come to life” is the best description I have ever read of him. Spot on. I think I’m going to have to read then watch.

    • lucysfootball

      I think you’d like the read. It’s deep and dark and twisty. I can’t guarantee the movie, because I haven’t seen it yet…but even if it’s not good, we could just stare at Benedict and Ewan, I suppose? That’s always a good time!

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