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Mr. Danger

From our July 2007 issue: 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.

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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

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.


PHOTOGRAPh: Courtesy of Billie Letts


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