Tracy Letts: August’s Family Guy

4 minute read
Richard Zoglin

August: Osage county–a lacerating, 3 hr. 20 min. play about one of the meanest, most dysfunctional families ever put onstage–is not much of an advertisement for filial love. Yet when it came time to cast the small but crucial role of the family patriarch–who appears in just one scene, then commits suicide–playwright Tracy Letts did something only a very brave son would do: he let his father play the role.

Dennis Letts, a former college professor turned character actor, appeared in the world-premiere production last year at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. Then, just before it was to transfer to Broadway, he received a diagnosis of stage-four lung cancer. Hard discussions with the creative team followed; he decided to plow ahead with the part. In between chemotherapy sessions, Letts made his Broadway debut in early December, sharing in the rave reviews. Less than three months later, he died. “Dad did eight shows a week until late January,” says his son. “Then he went into the hospital for what we thought was a short spell. But he hit a rapid slide and never came out. He went from being onstage to dead in about three weeks. It was something.”

You might even call it touching–if the term didn’t seem so out of place in Letts’ oeuvre. An actor who began writing plays in the early ’90s, he has turned out two slices of nasty trailer-park noir, Killer Joe and Bug; one spiritual-quest play with kinky twists, Man from Nebraska; and now, with August, a ferocious, giant-size family drama in which the gathering for Dad’s funeral turns into a donnybrook of revelations, recriminations and extreme combat. It may be the best American play of the new century. It has snagged nearly every honor in sight, from the Pulitzer Prize to a likely haul at this weekend’s Tony Awards.

Letts based the play on two real-life family events: when he was 10, his maternal grandfather drowned himself, and his grandmother spiraled into drug addiction. The rest of the outré plot twists–from money squabbles to incest–are invented, he says. Still, the shocking portrait of a pill-popping, mentally unstable, almost pathologically vicious matriarch (played by Deanna Dunagan) was close enough to reality that he had qualms about showing the play to his mother. “I knew it would be difficult for her to read,” he says. “But her response was, ‘I think you’ve been very kind to my mother.'”

Letts, 42, has lost the accent but not the plainspoken prairie equanimity of his Oklahoma roots. Both his parents were academics in the small college town of Durant, so it was something of a scandal when he ditched college and moved to Dallas at 17 to become an actor. From there he moved to Chicago, where he became enamored of the “gritty, in-your-face theater” exemplified by Steppenwolf. But it was a struggle. He had to move back home after a year to earn money, he battled drug and alcohol problems, and, after moving to Los Angeles in 1997, he lost his girlfriend of seven years, who died from a series of strokes related to a congenital heart defect. (Letts now lives with actress Nicole Wiesner.)

There were career frustrations too. The acting work in L.A. was spotty and hardly satisfying. “You get a Seinfeld episode, and people still to this day think that’s a big deal,” he says. “‘You were on the Festivus episode.’ That was four days out of my life!” He knew it was time to leave when he was kicking himself for losing out on a regular role in V.I.P., the Pamela Anderson action series. He drove to Chicago to appear in a Steppenwolf production of Glengarry Glen Ross and decided to stay.

Letts’ writing inspirations have ranged from Tennessee Williams to Oklahoma noir novelist Jim Thompson–and, not least, his own stage roles. “Acting teaches me so much about theater,” he says. “I played George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in Atlanta. That’s a play I have known intimately my whole life. But until you really crawl inside of it and see how it works, it’s not part of you. I know I’m a better playwright as a result of acting.” He has returned the favor; August provides 13 juicy roles for the members of Steppenwolf, and the company is currently rehearsing Letts’ next play, Superior Donuts. It’s a lighter, less grandiose work, he says. “I started it before August was performed. But I knew August was really big, and I wanted a smaller gesture.” Now that August: Osage County has thrust him into the very front ranks of American dramatists, however, nothing from Tracy Letts can be considered small again.

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