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Theatre / August: Osage County

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Misery Loves Family.

August: Osage County is a play written by Tracy Letts, which premiered at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in 2007 and was given a Broadway showing shortly thereafter. It won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The play tells the story of the Weston family, which is forced to reunite after the patriarch, once-famous poet Beverly Weston, turns up dead from suicide. It becomes apparent that Beverly's vindictive and pill-popping widow, Violet, has psychologically damaged each of their three middle-aged daughters, causing them to lead similarly self-destructive lives.

After Beverly's funeral, what is meant to be a time of mourning for the Westons devolves into several weeks of pettiness, cruelty, and recrimination that destroys the family from within.

A film adaptation, directed by John Wells and starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, and an All-Star Cast, was released on Christmas Day 2013.

This play provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Abusive Parents: Violet to her daughters. Mattie Fae to Little Charles. Barbara to Jean.
  • The Alcoholic:
    • Beverly and Violet are both alcoholics at the start of the play, though Violet's main addictions come from prescription drugs.
    • Barbara becomes one after her husband and daughter leave her while the rest of the family collapses.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Johnna the housekeeper walks in on Steve molesting Jean and beats him off with a frying pan. In the film, Johnna overhears Steve trying to convince Jean to lift up her shirt in exchange for marijuana, though this is offscreen and the viewer is only shown Johnna's point of view. She attacks Steve with a shovel.
  • Brother–Sister Incest: Ivy and Little Charles think they are Kissing Cousins. Thanks to Mattie Fae and Beverly, they're not.
  • Building of Adventure: The action of the play is confined to a three-story rural house, which is built entirely on stage.
  • Bumbling Dad: Charles and Bill are portrayed as incompetent, indecisive and weak-willed both as fathers and husbands, at odds with their wives at every turn.
  • Control Freak: Barbara desperately tries to seize control of her mother's drug addiction, the decline of her marriage, and the impending self-destruction of her entire family. She fails at all three.
  • Deconstruction: Of the Dysfunctional Family. Often, this trope is played for comedy, particularly in sitcoms whereas the family is at odds with each other and even bully one another for little to no reason. While the play is a Black Comedy, it also tears down the trope and demonstrates how miserable these people are with one another.
  • Dinner and a Show: One of the more bleak examples. The dramatic centerpiece of the play is the dinner following Beverly's funeral, which ends in a physical brawl between Barbara and Violet.
  • Driven to Suicide: Beverly Weston. The play explores why he did it.
  • Downer Ending: Karen learns that Steve is a sleazy pedophile but chooses to ignore the truth and marries him anyway; Ivy learns that she is actually half-siblings with her lover Little Charles but still chooses to run away with him to New York; Bill and Jean become fed up with Barbara's domineering behavior and leave her; Barbara ends up becoming an emotionally destitute drunk like her parents, and after finally realizing just how far gone Violet is, leaves her to eventually die miserable and alone. In the film this becomes Lighter and Softer, if only by omission. Ivy is shown driving away by herself. Barbara is still left at the house, although no descent into alcoholism is shown. It is also left ambiguous what happens to Violet. The entire family has left at this point, though she is shown with housekeeper Johnna. Karen still marries Steve.
  • Dysfunction Junction: The Weston family in spades:
    • Even before being Driven to Suicide, Beverly Weston was a failed poet and alcoholic who had crossed into the Despair Event Horizon over the state of his wife and family.
    • Violet Weston is a pill-popping Abusive Parent and Manipulative Bitch who insults each of her family members and turns them against each other.
    • Barbara Weston, Violet's oldest daughter, is a neurotic Control Freak who constantly tries to micromanage the chaos around her, from Violet's drug addiction to her own failing marriage.
    • Ivy Weston, Violet's middle daughter, is planning to run away with her first cousin Little Charles Aiken, unaware that he is actually her half-brother.
    • Karen Weston, Violet's youngest daughter, is obsessed with her wedding plans even in the midst of her father's funeral and chooses to live in denial when her "perfect" fiancé tries to molest her niece.
    • Bill Fordham, Barbara's husband, slept with one of his students at the college where he taught.
    • Jean Fordham, Barbara's daughter, is apathetic towards the rest of the family and shows more concern for watching Lon Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera (1925) on television than attending Beverly's funeral.
    • Mattie Fae Aiken, Violet's sister and Little Charles' mother, constantly puts down her son until her husband gives her the Reason You Suck treatment and his Brother–Sister Incest with Ivy is revealed.
  • Evil Matriarch: You could reasonably argue that Violet was influenced by the drugs she took. But even after she was weaned off the drugs, Violet still revealed traumatizing secrets about her daughters to the rest of the family For the Evulz.
  • Freudian Excuse:
    • It's hinted that the reason Barbara is such a Control Freak towards Bill and Jean, and the reason she did not speak to Beverly and Violet, was to avoid the toxic mayhem of the Weston household.
    • Similarly, Violet's mother was emotionally abusive, and in all likelihood far worse than Violet herself. Easy to see where she gets it from, huh?
  • Gender-Blender Name: Beverly Weston.
  • Ignored Epiphany: Twice. First, Karen tries to blame Jean for Steve's attempt to molest her and chooses to lie to herself over what he did, obsessed with getting a better life than the rest of her family and deluding herself into thinking a marriage to Steve will assure that. Then, Ivy learns from Violet that her first cousin Little Charles is actually her half-brother, but insists that she will still start a new life in New York with Little Charles without telling him the truth.
  • Killed Offscreen: Beverly's fate is implied but left ambiguous until the end of Act One. Averted in the film, which shows him climbing into a boat as he prepares to drown himself.
  • Kissing Cousins: Subverted. Ivy and Little Charles try to keep their relationship a secret because they are first cousins. It turns out later that Beverly was Little Charles' real father, making them half-siblings.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Violet's actions alienate her entire family by the end, leaving her alone and pathetically staggering through the empty house.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: The trailer for the Meryl Streep film adaptation makes Osage look like an upbeat family dramedy. Only someone who has seen the play would know how dark and depressing the story really is. The poster is much more truthful.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Violet and Barb. They are both assertive, quick to temper, holier than thou, and by the end of the play they are both hard drinkers. Brutally lampshaded by Ivy when Violet reveals that she and Little Charles are half-siblings.
    Barb: This wasn't me, okay? This wasn't me. This wasn't me, it was Mom!
    Ivy: There's no difference!
  • Parental Favoritism: Discussed. Violet tells Barb that she was Beverly's favorite and that she is partly responsible for his death by moving away. Ivy later counters this by saying that she was Beverly's favorite and Barb was Violet's, and that Barb's moving away hurt her the most. Of course, this leaves Karen as The Un-Favorite.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: Beverly's death gathers the family together and shortly after that all kinds of conflicts that had been seething under the surface erupt.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Plenty throughout:
    • Charles gives one to Mattie Fae over her abusive treatment of Little Charles, threatening to leave her if she doesn't start treating him better.
      Charles: Mattie Fae, we're gonna get in the car and go home. And if you say one more mean thing to that boy I'm gonna kick your fat Irish ass into the highway.
      Mattie Fae Aiken: What the hell did you just say to me?
      Charlie Aiken: Kids, go outside, would you please? I don't understand this meanness. I look at you and your sister and the way you talk to people and I don't understand it. I can't understand why folks can't be respectful to one another. I don't think there's any excuse for it. My family didn't treat each other that way.
      Mattie Fae Aiken: Oh, maybe cause your family didn't have...
      Charlie Aiken: You better not say anything about my family right now, I mean it! We just buried a man I loved very much. And whatever faults he may have had, he was a good, kind, decent man. And to hear you tearing your own son not even a day later dishonors Beverly's memory. We've been married 38 years and I wouldn't trade it for anything. But if you can't find a generous place in your heart for your own son, we're not gonna make it to 39.
    • Bill gives one to Barbara after she slaps Jean during an argument, announcing that he and Jean are leaving the house and will not take Barbara with them.
  • Surprise Incest: Little Charles and Ivy, who were already Kissing Cousins, are revealed to be half-siblings.
  • The Unfavorite: Karen. She has the least interaction with her mother, and what little she does have are brutal criticisms.

Alternative Title(s): August Osage County