Saturday, January 5, 2008

"August: Osage County" as a window into rural America

I saw "August: Osage County" today. It's been all the rage on Broadway for the past month, since a positive review in the NYT in early December, further fueled by an NPR story in late December. Knowing that the play was set in Osage County, Oklahoma, in the rural northeastern part of the state, had me wondering to what extent its plot would be rural specific, or rural driven. These speculations were further fueled by my knowledge that the play featured a family whose members displayed a wide range of dysfunctional (even socio-pathic) behaviors, including alcoholism, pedophilia, drug abuse, adultery, and incest.

As it turns out, the play's rural setting is largely incidental. Most of what goes on in "August: Osage County" could happen anywhere. So, to the extent that Tulsa, Oklahoma native Tracy Letts, the playwright, thought that by setting his play in Pawhuska (current population 3,600) he was offering a commentary on rural America, I would disagree. Oh sure, some of the language suggests the rural mid-South; indeed, my jaw dropped at some turns of phrase (too off color to be repeated here) by family patriarch Beverly Weston because I had never heard them spoken by anyone except my own father in rural NW Arkansas. A few more substantive aspects of the play also struck me as peculiarly rural. Among them was the mother's emotional blackmail of her eldest daughter for leaving Pawhuska to live in Colorado, where she went for a job appropriate to her credentials and presumably not available in Pawhuska and environs. There, the message was less "you left us," than "you left here." What I saw in that exchange was the multi-generational "attachment to place" associated with rural families.

While some might associate some of the dysfunctions on display with rural folk, I was relieved that Letts does not present us a "Beverly Hillbillies"-type family or "Deliverance"-style psychopaths. Rather, the Westons are relatively affluent, highly educated (perhaps with the exception of matriarch Violet, who nevertheless was the first in her family to finish high school, as was Beverly), and quite sophisticated in many ways. Each of the three daughters graduated from college and two, like their father, are employed in some capacity in higher education. Again, its not your typical rural family (excepting, I suppose, academic families that move to "rural" college towns). Yet the fact that Beverly and Violet are natives of the Pawhuska area and that they pulled themselves up by their proverbial (and perhaps literal) bootstraps from childhoods of deprivation, thereby creating opportunities that permitted the next generation to leave rural Pawhuska, is an important component of the emotional tension driving this marvelous play.

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