Last night I spent a rare night in a theater. One of those unforgettable experiences where I had the opportunity to watch a legendary actor, in a uniquely successful, modern play. A couple years ago I was able to see Cherry Jones in her Tony winning performance as Sister Aloysius in Doubt, a Tony- and Pulitzer-prize winning play. Last night I was fortunate to see Estelle Parsons in the Tony- and Pulitzer-prize winning play August: Osage County.
It was a night that was amazing and powerful and reminded me why I love theatre. Of course, besides the obvious, one of the unique things about the whole experience is that this is a play, not a musical. It’s a straight, 3-act, proscenium and kitchen-sink drama. And it’s touring the country, getting huge houses and rave reviews.
It’s a play.
I love that, and I find it hard to believe. We need more of this in our culture.
The script is beautiful and lyrical and extremely powerful at times. It’s also over-the-top with numerous….issues that it touches on. And then after touching on an issue, it pushes that topic over the cliff. It’s been likened to Long Days Journey into Night and to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and after the emotional beating I felt last night I’d say both comparisons are accurate. For me, personally, there were a couple moments which were more than difficult to hear. And as emotionally wrenching as the script can be, there were many, many moments of hilarity. And the combination made it almost as much a well-written tv comedy series episode (Roseanne came to mind, for more reasons than just the lead actor) as it is the latest notch on the belt of modern American drama classics, like Proof, and Doubt and any number of things by Tony Kuschner. Tracy Letts has written himself well into the history books of 21st century American theatre.
The production itself was also beautiful and flawless…well, almost flawless – I have one tiny quibble, but beautiful and clean and powerful. The show originated as Steppenwolf production and it’s raw, honest acting style is well represented, fitting in with all the productions I’ve witnessed from that company. The cast was brilliant. Shannon Cochran, who plays the eldest daughter Barbara, was a joy to watch! She was funny and tough and tender, and I’d love to see more of her. The credentials of the cast were, of course, impressive, but the star of the show was the household name that many came to see, and who’s received such high praise for her performance. Estelle Parsons. What I cannot believe, and yet I saw it, was that this woman was unstoppable in her performance and energy. She cried, laughed and screamed her way around that stage, and up and down those steps, for 3 1/2 hours. An exhausting feat for any actor, but she’s 82 years old! She’s performing 8 shows a week. And this is not some sort of “Let’s put this icon figure in this role to sell tickets” kind of thing (although, I guess it could be) she leads that cast and works her ass off. I only hope some day I’ve still got that kind energy to do such a thing.
The hard thing is…what is this play about? I’m not sure. It’s about family, and love, and connection and disconnection, and…parts of it are about my family. In some cases, a bit too much. (Thankfully it’s not in a few ways.)
If it had a message, I’m not sure what that would be. But I don’t think all plays have to have a “message” per se. Does Albee’s Virginia Woolf? Or O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey? Or are they essentially stories to which we can each connect in our own way, which in turn might reveal truths to ourselves, for ourselves and for own lives?
And in some ways, isn’t that what art really is? The individual experience and reaction to a created piece?
I think so. Last night I was witness to a beautiful piece of art. It made me think and feel things about my own life and my own family and my own destiny and past. Perhaps someday I’ll see it again, and when I do, I suspect I’ll get something different out of it.
Oh…and just for full disclosure. I’ve adored Estelle Parsons since I first saw her in Bonnie and Clyde, my favorite movie. So I’m biased. And getting to see her in person, screaming and crying and shaking head as if she’d just been shot in the eye, was its own kind of joy. (If you don’t know the movie that might sound cruel. It isn’t.)