This past weekend, the Tiny Goddess and I saw a very fine production of Tracy Letts' AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY at the Theatricum Botanicum, a beautiful outdoor amphitheatre in Topanga Canyon, in the lovely Santa Monica Mountains in western Los Angeles.
I'd seen the play twice before -- once on Broadway, in the multi-Tony-Award-winning production from the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago; and once in Los Angeles, in the national touring company of the same production. (The TG was out of town, and I really liked the play and was curious to see what other actors would do with the same material.)
It's not a perfect play, but it's a great play – filled with memorable characters, strong situations, juicy lines, and maybe one too many reveals. Nevertheless, it's one of the best plays written in the past twenty years and will be performed by community theatres, college theatres, and regional repertory theatres forever.
One of the best things about the play – and something I realize that I like in general – is a fantastically vicious yet charismatic FEMALE character in the central role. "Violet Weston" – the poisonous matriach of the family dissected/eviscerated in the play – is simply one of the greatest female parts ever written. The original actress in the part Deana Dunagan won a Tony in 2008 for her performance and rightfully so. In the national touring company, I saw Estelle Parsons, who took a different, slightly softer but equally evil approach to the character. Last night's Violet – Ellen Geer – chose a middle ground. There are many ways to play Violet Weston: the mark of a great, well-conceived dramatic character.
The play made me think of some of the great female villains I've enjoyed over the years, in movies, in books, and on stage. Here is a hand filled with "black queens":
Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis Dietrichson in DOUBLE INDEMNITY
MEDEA – with the great Australian actress Zoe Caldwell
WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? – Original Broadway Cast Recording – with Uta Hagen as Martha – the beginning of the play – I listened to this a million times as a teenager.
Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in REBECCA
Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth – never saw her – but check out this clip at 3:10
Sian Phillips as Livia in I, CLAUDIUS
and her namesake
Nancy Marchand as Livia in THE SOPRANOS – from the pilot
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY – the Act II dinner scene – with Deana Dunagan
The less said about the movie AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, the better. I'm a huge Meryl Streep fan, but even she couldn't save that grim, plodding affair. No matter: the movie won't hurt the play's viability in theatres all across the world.
As Alfred Hitchcock famously said, "The better the villain, the better the movie." And if it's a female villain, I think you have something really special. Women are extremely complex, and it's a challenge for a writer – especially a male writer -- to create a female character with all the shadings and complications that real women present.