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Mr. Danger

For his first three plays, Tracy Letts, the Steppenwolf actor and writer, produced trailer-trash pulp, a creepy horror-romance, and a simple story involving average people in wrist restraints. His latest work—a sprawling family saga that premières this summer—suggests where some of that menacing energy comes from.

“I don’t think even he realizes how scary he can be,” says a Steppenwolf colleague.  Photograph: Andreas Larsson

I‘m on the line with Tracy Letts’s mom, Billie, in Tulsa. “Tracy tells me you started as a teacher,” I remark, in the fond belief that I’m conducting an interview.

“He didn’t tell you about the prostitution or my selling drugs, did he?” chirps the late-60ish professor’s wife who has spent her retirement years writing and publishing novels, including an Oprah-selected bestseller called Where the Heart Is.

“He didn’t mention it.”

“OK, well, we probably should start there,” she says. “As soon as I got out of prison . . . .”

The woman’s a pistol.

“My mother has a perverse sense of humor,” agrees Letts fils, the 41-year-old Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble member whose handful of original plays have inspired everything from apoplexy to Pulitzer Prize consideration and a film deal. “She picked me up from school once when I was a little kid. Normally my dad picked me up. And I get in the car and I say, ‘Where’s Dad?’ She says, ‘Honey, I don’t know how to tell you this. Your father and I have separated. People love each other, but then they grow apart and your father and I have decided to get a divorce.’ I’m probably eight years old. Well, of course, I immediately start welling up. She jabs me in the ribs and says, ‘Just kiddin’!'”

And with that, Tracy Letts—tall, fair, Midwest affable, and so pale-pink-skinned that he can look at times like an albino with a sunburn—lets loose his high, hard cackle of a laugh. Taken aback, I ask what it was like growing up with a mother like that. “Hilarious,” he gasps between cackles. Didn’t you resent it? “Fuck no. Hilarious.”

I’m pretty sure he means it, too. Because Letts himself is something of a pistol. Under the right circumstances, a full-out bazooka. His first play—Killer Joe, which premièred at Evanston’s Next Lab in 1993—was a mean-funny piece of trailer-trash pulp so vulgar, violent, and arguably nihilistic that even Billie’s initial response on reading it was to tell her boy he had created something “horrible.” He followed that with Bug, a sort of sci-fi-horror-romance-at once ridiculous, ghastly, and perversely poignant—about love as a form of infestation. Even Letts’s career as an actor is constructed, in large part, around characters who convey a cool, often amused menace—a sense of smoothly contained rage. What his friend and Steppenwolf colleague Amy Morton calls his “Mr. Danger” persona. “I don’t think even he realizes how scary he can be,” Morton says. Another longtime actor friend, Jeff Still, adds that Letts came to be known early on as “Jimmy Stewart with an ax.”

But Letts’s m.o. took a surprising turn in the fall of 2003, with the première of his third play, Man from Nebraska. The depravity, the grotesquery, the manic speed, noise, laughs, and—above all—rage of Bug and Killer Joe were suddenly gone. In their place, the tale of Ken Carpenter, a middle-class, middle-aged Baptist with a long marriage, two grown daughters, and a dying mother, who loses his faith in God and goes off to figure out what to do next.

Possibly more radical than the change of subject, though, was the great and—for Letts—anomalous quiet that suffused this play. The first scene of Man from Nebraska contains only two spoken lines: Ken’s wife, Nancy, saying, “They’re finally going to tear down that ugly house,” and Ken responding, “Mm,” as they take the Sunday drive to church. A stage direction reads, “KEN drives. NANCY . . . looks out the window. KEN drives. They sit in the car. KEN drives.”

“I read it and I was immediately struck by the simplicity of it,” says Rick Snyder, who originated the role of Ken. “I love the fact that the play starts and nobody says anything. You see these people sit in their car. They go to eat at the cafeteria. There’s barely a word uttered for, what, 15 or 20 minutes. . . .

“Here’s a man who’s written brutal plays like Bug and Killer Joe, and here’s this gentle, simple story about average people. It just blew me away." 

Of course, it’s not as if the old bazooka Letts had disappeared without a trace. As the Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips points out, the playwright manages to find room in all that quiet for a sex scene involving wrist restraints: “All of a sudden the handcuffs come out and you think, Well, there’s Tracy Letts again.” But Letts was clearly out to project a new voice. Things are allowed to take their time in Man from Nebraska; the quiet grows and changes and ultimately becomes a kind of declaration. The Pulitzer Prize board—which had previously considered and rejected Bug—recognized Man from Nebraska as a nominated finalist for the 2004 award in drama.

Now Letts has turned yet again. His new play—set to run June 28th through August 26th in a Steppenwolf mounting directed by Anna D. Shapiro (who also directed the première production of Man from Nebraska)—is a three-act, three-and-a-quarter-hour, 13-character family saga with traumatic autobiographical resonances and large aspirations, called August: Osage County. For Jeff Still the ambition of the piece suggests Letts’s “willingness to roll up his sleeves and say, Let’s get O’Neill about this, let’s get Chekhov about this.” For Letts himself it’s just “hard. It’s the hardest thing I’ve done. It. Is. The. Hardest. Thing. I’ve. Done. It’s a hard play.”

Letts with his brother, Shawn, at four

But back to Billie Letts. She gave birth to Tracy S. Letts (the “S” is for Shane, as in the 1953 Western starring Alan Ladd) on the Fourth of July 1965, in Tulsa. He was her baby: six years younger than her other biological son, Shawn, now a Singapore-based saxophonist and composer; 12 years the junior of her stepson, Dana, who grew up to be a librarian at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

The family did a lot of traveling in Tracy’s first years, some of it in Europe, as his father, Dennis, pursued academic opportunities on the way to obtaining a Ph.D. But by the time Tracy was six, the Lettses were ensconced long term in an Oklahoma town of about 12,000 souls called Durant (DOO-rant): home to Southeastern Oklahoma State University, where Dennis Rodman played college ball and Dennis Letts taught in the English department.

At 17 in a community theatre production in Oklahoma of The Skin of Our Teeth

Billie remembers her youngest as “one of the happiest babies and children I’ve ever seen"—collecting comic books, participating in Shawn’s superhero theatricals, making scary movies with his Super 8, parading around their rural property with a pack of pet dogs he’d named “My Dog, Your Dog, His Dog, Mama Dog, and on and on and on.” Tracy’s own memories aren’t so idyllic. “It’s a little shocking even for me now to look at the town where I grew up,” he remarks. “Think of The Last Picture Show, add color, subtract character, and then make them all Republicans, and you sort of get the idea. Shawn and I both felt we didn’t belong where we were from.”

It’s not hard to picture a young Tracy and his family as members of a small, embattled cadre of academics—a capsule intelligentsia à la Chekhov—marooned in Podunk, longing for Moscow. Or even Dallas. “This wasn’t some possum kingdom,” Dennis Letts assures me, anticipating my condescension, “but we didn’t have ballet. Part of the time we didn’t have a movie theatre. What we had was the college.” And that sense of isolation, of circled wagons in the wilderness, has told on Tracy. To this day he moves among a close-knit group of friends. The taste for cruel humor, too—a way of dividing the world into Us and Them. Even Billie Letts acknowledges that her happy baby “was odd man out—thought he was—all through school.” Tracy Letts was meant for other things.

And he appears not to have been the only one. Dennis Letts had always wanted to be an actor. Eventually he would get his wish, earning roles in about 40 movies—including the 2000 adaptation of Billie’s novel, Where the Heart Is, starring Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd (who coincidentally stars in the film version of Bug). For a long time, though, Dennis settled for community productions, and Tracy’s first memory of the theatre is seeing his dad play Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Later, father and son would perform together. “I kind of got conned into doing my first show,” Tracy recalls. “This woman wanted to use my father in a community theatre production of The Solid Gold Cadillac she was directing in Tishomingo, Oklahoma, but it was an hour away and she knew he wasn’t going to do it. So she asked me, at age 15, if I would play the narrator, knowing that my father would have to drive me to rehearsals. And if he had to drive me to rehearsals, he would be in the show.”

Tracy’s theatrical epiphany came a couple of years later, when he played a street punk in Israel Horovitz’s The Indian Wants the Bronx. That, he says, “was the first time I felt my potential for power, the first time I felt something take hold.” Dennis sensed it, too: “I’ve never seen Tracy more intense in any play. That was in him.”

After attending Southeastern Oklahoma State for what he invariably calls one “drug-addled” semester, the youngest Letts dropped out and headed for Dallas with his headshot and résumé. He stayed there three years before concluding that it was “the worst city in the United States” (note that his ugliest play, Killer Joe, takes place on the outskirts of Dallas) and—in 1985, at 20—moving to Chicago.

Which, truth be told, wasn’t all that happy to see him at first. “I came up here; I auditioned at every theatre in town. Twice,” he says. “Couldn’t get arrested. Got broke, had to move back home, saved up some money, and said, Dammit, I’m going back! ‘Cause I really liked the city and I really liked the theatre scene and I wanted to be part of it.” By 1988, Letts was working Off-Loop and, perhaps more important, making friends like Anna Shapiro and the actor Michael Shannon, who would become part of his close, mutually loyal cadre of collaborators.

Letts in his late teens

Most of that cadre was present at the Next Theatre one evening in 1991 when Killer Joe received its first public reading. “There was outrage!” Letts booms. “And I had invited friends!”

What really set people off was a scene in which the title character—a sociopathic police detective who moonlights as a hit man—forces a woman to fellate a fried chicken leg from KFC. “Oh, man, there were women in my face over that!” Letts booms again. “There were women near tears” over what they regarded as a blatant, not to say graphic, display of misogyny.

“All I can remember,” says Shapiro, “is that it was very hard for me to see the allegory in a woman being choked by a chicken bone.”

The reaction was the same when Letts tried shopping the play around Chicago. Theatre after theatre declined it, praising his writing skill but quailing over the prospect of staging That Scene. It got so Letts came to think of how people answered the Drumstick Question—leave it in, take it out—as a barometer of their character. In fact, he claims to have based his relationship with the late actress Holly Wantuch on it. She’d read the role of Sharla, the forced chicken fellator, for the  reading at Next. “And I remember distinctly,” Letts explains, “Holly coming up to me after the reading and saying, ‘Don’t cut the chicken-leg scene! It’s the best part!’ I’m like, That’s the woman for me.”

With Kate Arrington in a 2005 Steppenwolf production of The Pain and the Itch

She was, too: Letts and Wantuch lived together from 1991 until January 26, 1998, when Wantuch died of a series of strokes related to a congenital heart condition. Both Killer Joe and Bug are dedicated to her—and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the searching quiet of Man from Nebraska had to do with her, as well.

(About a year after Wantuch’s death, Letts got serious about another Killer Joe cast member, Sarah Paulson—now a regular on NBC’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip—but it didn’t last, and Paulson has since moved on to a relationship with the actress Cherry Jones. (“My standard joke is: ‘Another in the long list of women I’ve turned lesbian.’") Letts currently lives with Nicole Wiesner, a member of Chicago’s Trap Door Theatre ensemble, who has yet to appear in Killer Joe.)

In 1993, armed with a grant from the Illinois Arts Council and the fierce support of the Next Theatre cofounder Harriet Spizziri, Letts, Wantuch, and a few others decided, finally, to produce Killer Joe themselves. The dominant critical response was beyond indignant. Jack Helbig’s review for the Chicago Reader, in particular, compared the play to “slasher films and hard-core pornography,” saying, “Some may argue that these disturbing scenes are part of the play’s dark worldview, and I would agree that they are. But when an artist’s vision is so contemptible, barbaric, and flat-out evil, the fact that he’s consistent is no virtue.” The review goes on to equate Letts with the “hundreds of hack writers before him.”

Incredibly, Helbig didn’t stop there. Seven years later, he took the opportunity of a new production to indict Killer Joe as “mean-spirited crap” for its exploitation of white-trash stereotypes. Needless to say, Letts was miffed—which led to what both he and Helbig would certainly agree was a classic moment in local theatre lore. It happened at the Chicago première of Bug, at A Red Orchid Theatre, in the fall of 2001. Letts was standing with a bunch of people on the sidewalk outside the theatre when Helbig approached on his way to see the show. “I couldn’t restrain myself,” Letts recalls. “I said, ‘Jack, you fucking horse’s cock!’ He turned and he looked at me and I said, ‘You here to review this? Write that down, you son of a bitch! Fucking horse’s cock!’”

“I did shrink about five inches,” Helbig says today, but he has since chosen to think of the insult as a homage to his virility.

As it turned out, none of this had any effect on the fortunes of Killer Joe. The Chicago Tribune’s Richard Christiansen saw the 1993 production, engaged it as nothing more nor less than “glorious pulp fiction,” and gave it a positive review that Letts and the show’s director, Wilson Milam, credit with turning it into a hit. “I remember a couple of nights when audience members ran for the door of the theatre but didn’t leave,” Letts recalls. “They wanted to see what was gonna happen, but they wanted to be near the door. It was exciting.”

This success encouraged Letts and friends to take their production to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where it was also a hit—which led in turn to hit runs in London and New York.

Killer Joe was actually something more than a hit in London. Arriving at about the same time as a number of similarly nasty plays by young artists like Martin McDonagh and the late, critic-hounded Sarah Kane, Letts’s first effort was perceived to be part of a general theatrical “explosion.” As the London-based critic Aleks Sierz told me by e-mail, ”Killer Joe was one of the landmark plays of the mid-1990s. It turned trailer-trash thrills and spills into a vision of how poverty in a society of plenty can corrupt everyone, and every feeling.”

Under the circumstances, it made sense to première Bug in London. But, says Sierz, this tale of a lonely woman named Agnes, her paranoid lover, and the legions of tiny creatures that he’s sure are multiplying beneath his skin “was just too weird for most British critics.” The American première in New York had dangerous bugs of its own. It came close to self-destructing when its Agnes, Amanda Plummer, quit due to artistic differences with director Dexter Bullard, just a few days before previews.

“I had gotten warnings, but I didn’t really believe anything was going to come of it,” says Shannon Cochran, who had played Agnes in London. “Then Friday night [before previews] I got a strange phone call from a bar in New York. It was Tracy and [the play’s producers]. They were all up like at two in the morning and freaking out. I could hear people in the background just sort of sitting around going, ‘Oh, what are we gonna do?’”

What they did was hire Cochran, who stepped in and quite literally saved the show. And a good thing for them, too, because that was the production of Bug that William Friedkin saw.

“Someone had told me it was terrific, and I found myself with an evening and I went to see it and it really haunted me,” says Friedkin, the 71-year-old Chicago-born film director best known for The Exorcist and The French Connection. “Then I was back a short time later with my wife and some friends, and I took them to see it and it moved me even more. The idea began to occur to me that it could make a very powerful suspense film.”

Working with Letts’s screenplay and a budget under $4 million, Friedkin made the movie, which opened in the United States on May 25th. And is deeply creepy. Creepy on a psychological level. Creepy as an exploration of the smudged divide between love and mania. Creepy in that it allows you to see the moment and the means by which one person’s madness becomes a contagion.

Letts can do humor: he occasionally appears at iO Theater with the fabled team of T. J. & Dave (T. J. Jagodowski and David Pasquesi), and has developed a sitcom pilot called Cop Show with Pasquesi. Killer Joe showed he could do sick; Man from Nebraska, that he can access the life of quiet desperation. But Bug established his mastery of creepy.

Together: (back row, from left) Tracy’s stepbrother, Dana; Tracy; his friend, the actress Nicole Wiesner; his brother, Shawn; (front row) Dana’s wife, Deborah; Tracy’s father, Dennis; his mother, Billie; and Shawn’s wife, Shariffah PHOTOGRAPh: Courtesy of Billie Letts

And now there’s August: Osage County. Which brings us back to Billie Letts. Who has a special—and rather unnerving—stake in Tracy’s sprawling new play, because August: Osage County was inspired by her parents: her father, who committed suicide when Tracy was ten, and her mother, who became addicted to downers.

“That’s pretty much all in the play that’s drawn from real life,” Tracy says. “The characters are all amalgams of real people and imagined people. Some of them are purely fictitious. But it’s an event in my life that obviously has stayed with me, and it’s a play I’ve been turning around in my head for a long time. How to tell that story. …

“I think about plays for years before I actually sit down and write, and in this instance I’ve thought about it for many, many, many years.”

In the play, the death  of the patriarch (to be played at Steppenwolf by none other than Dennis Letts) triggers a gathering of the Westons of Oklahoma: a trio of daughters with their various men; a granddaughter; Aunt Mattie Fay and her family. Letts practically dares comparisons to classics of the canon. The three sisters struggle with duty like Chekhov’s Olga, Masha, and Irina; spinning between delirium and a deep cruelty, the junkie matriarch, Violet, echoes Mary Tyrone of A Long Day’s Journey into Night. But Letts also offers bravura gestures of his own: a long, dysfunctional dinner scene includes passages of overlapping voices designed to play like an a cappella fugue. With its multiple threads and shifting loci, August: Osage County is meant not merely to tell a story but to tell a family.

I asked Billie to confirm some of the history behind the play. “No, I don’t think so,” she began—then, abruptly, “Yes, my father did commit suicide, and, yes, my mother was on drugs! Are we weird enough yet?” After all the banter, she wasn’t immune to these memories. So I asked if she’d talked to Tracy, to try to get him off this subject matter. “No,” she said, “I would never tell him, Don’t tell the truth.” The woman’s a pistol, sure, but brave.


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