The Blasting Couch: Parsons, left, busts balls, pops pills.

Sign up for our free newsletter

You’ll have heard by now that in August: Osage County, Tracy Letts has set a rip-snorting, fire-breathing matriarchal monster to spewing venom with the same relish Martha brought to spitting invective in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? She’s a keeper, this pill-popping, fiercely enduring Violet Weston—a feverishly addled Estelle Parsons at the KenCen—the sort of character you store away in the memory to trot out when some upstart Medea comes along in a generation or so. What you may not have heard, though, is that Letts has surrounded this hard-hearted harpy with folks who can hurl calumnies right back at her. August is the sort of family opus Walter Kerr was thinking of years ago when he opined that “parents are going to be vilified on stage for as long as mothers insist on giving birth to playwrights.” But if Letts is traipsing down a time-honored dramatic path, he’s doing so with a whole family’s worth of monsterettes: self-absorbed Karen (Amy Warren), whose primary reason for attending her father’s funeral is to show off her new fiancé; diminutive fireplug Mattie Fae (Libby George) who never met a situation she couldn’t talk into submission; preternaturally passive Ivy (Angelica Torn) bruised and fuming over years spent caring for unappreciative parents; control-freak Barbara (Shannon Cochran) who delivers a game-changing “I’m in charge!” with a ferocity that’s downright Shakespearean. Their men are secondary but not merely appendages. They indulge in what you might call protective vices—adulteries, pederasty, alcoholism, and what-have-you—to keep from being tromped into the floorboards by their respective battleaxes. The storyline they’re caught up in is composed largely of digressions—let a fight brew, and someone will start babbling about vegetarianism; let a revelation surface, and talk turns to parakeets—but somehow that doesn’t change the evening’s forward momentum, or the Perils of Pauline nature of its narrative. It’s been a while since audiences have been asked to attend to a play primarily for reasons of plot. Character’s been central for so long that we’ve gotten out of the habit of actually being surprised by a play. But Letts has a couple of genuine startlers in his second and third acts—identity issues, loyalty issues—as well as a dinner-from-hell sequence that feels climactic but turns out to be little more than a mid-evening twist. You may leave the KenCen feeling you’ve been entertained by much ado about precious little, but it’s quite a ride.