Tuesday, May 11, 2010

"August:Osage County" Theater Review/Life Review

We just saw the play “August: Osage County” starring Estelle Parsons at Boston’s Colonial Theater. It was a three act play, lasting three hours with two intermissions which could have been three because of the intensity of the drama.

For those of us who grew up in families like the dysfunctional/addictive one portrayed in the play it was a life review, an opportunity to view from a distance the way we were—and for some still are.

For me it was a panoramic view on a small stage. It brought tears, laughter, honest empathy and hardy applause for the resilience of all the characters who, in spite of being almost destroyed by the ravages of addiction, forge, each in their own way and according to their own personality, a path to freedom— or at least to another chance at freedom giving life.

But this play, written by Tracy Letts, is a classic tragedy showing as much appreciation for the vulnerability of human life as the classic Greek tragedians did. The matriarch takes pills; the patriarch drinks, but the tragic hero is the whole family (parents, daughters, aunt, granddaughter, cousin and in-laws.) The tragic flaw is lack of boundaries. The individual is subsumed into the chaotic death-dealing dynamic of a system in which the power of the whole nearly obliterates the parts. In family therapy this is called enmeshment. I call it the sprout family (can’t pick up one without picking them all up.)

People caught up in an enmeshed system divorce their minds.

The opposite of enmeshment is estrangement, a way some systems develop to control the many threatening feelings (anger, guilt, fear, sorrow) that naturally arise but are too dangerous to express in response to the disease of addiction. This is as much of a control strategy as enmeshment. It just looks different, more like a bunch of closely related people all in thick rubber suits with slits for the eyes. They don't talk, feel, hear, touch (just brush up against each other if necessary)—and can barely see. But they all feel safe as they go about the business of living together.

People caught up in estranged systems divorce their hearts.

Either way you sob inside.

This is life as apocalypse now. It’s like living life in a mine field with no time or energy for anything but constant watchfulness and mental, emotional and physical tension.

In this play each daughter copes, taking on a role in order to control the chaos. The oldest is the “hero” who tries to achieve some respectability for the whole by doing it right, if not perfectly. The middle daughter is the “clown,” trying to control by distracting attention from the pain, and the youngest daughter is the “lost child” who controls by being passive and self-denying, believing that her quietism alone will control the raucus “caucus.” All roles fail to achieve the desired end.

The central characters (parents, daughters, aunt, granddaughter, cousin and in-laws) are drawn and rendered with tenderness not sentimentality and a fierce attentiveness to the irony and humor of the situation. But somehow they all care about each other. And in the end their individuality breaks through the armor of the adopted role. Who cares if their choices are functional? Who cares about the outcome at this point? Truth is revealed. They leave one by one.

All this unfolds because of an excellent script, exceptionally gifted actors and an unexpected twist in the parental dynamic that bring both death and new life.

Estelle Parsons plays the “villain” no less trapped in the system than the others but rising above it in spite of her drug-induced haze by telling the truth with a scalpel for a tongue and no compassion. Yet we witness a transformation here too although she ends up as tragedy would have it abandoned, sick, and as wounded as the rest with less chance of escape.

I found redemption, something I think all great art must have, not only in the characters' individual triumphs but in the final collapse of the matriarch who stumbles upstairs to seek refuge in the arms of the outsider, the family housekeeper, the one who stays for the most part outside the melee and so is able to cradle the pathetic matriarch and croon a lullaby.