The Ponca Playhouse will be present the play “August: Osage County,” a Pulitzer-Prize-winning play that features 13 characters, numerous storylines running parallel to one another and enough family dysfunction and drama to fill a season of reality-based television.
The play will open on Thursday, July 19 and have performances on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee. Performances will be at the Playhouse’s black box theater at 301 South 1st Street.
The story centers around the Weston clan and an impromptu reunion after the disappearance of its patriarch Beverly.
“The story of this family is pretty universal,” says playwright Tracy Letts. “The dinner scene alone, in the theater: I can tell you that some people are howling with laughter, and other people are in tears crawling under their seats — they find it very upsetting to watch because it hits pretty close to home.”
“The first thing I noticed about this play is that this play really is about Oklahoma,” says the show’s producer and sponsor Hugh Pickens. “There are references throughout the play to Pawhuska, Tulsa, Native Americans, and the Plains. The play, after all was written by an Oklahoman about Oklahomans.”
“I’m a huge Tracy Letts fan,” says director Lance Garrett. “I like the grittier side of theater, and Tracy is a fantastic writer of the underbelly of society. He’s from Oklahoma, which I think is fantastic — his family still lives here. I see a lot of parallels in “August: Osage County” to families that I know. There are parallels in the show to some of my family members, and so to me it just speaks volumes to the quality of writing, that he can touch on so many different aspects of family life in a show that is chock-full of horrible characters.”
“I think that the play, at its heart, is a drama,” says Garrett. “But I also think that it deals with the dramatic in a very comedic way. One of my big defenses is comedy. If I’m in an uncomfortable situation, I start cracking jokes. And I try to make people laugh to lighten the mood. And throughout the show, there are many, many different instances where the characters onstage say something that, to them, in that situation, may not be really funny. But to us as an audience, it is a release, it’s a way to laugh against the drama that we’re being hit with.”
Strong Female Characters
The play contains some of the strongest writing for mature female characters of any plays in modern American theater says Pickens.
“The role of Beverly Weston, the matriarch of the family is especially intense.”
“Violet is the matriarch of the family,” says Sam Stuart who plays the role of Violet. “Violet is very strong-willed, she’s very manipulative. She is not a nice person. I think that the term that I’ve used to describe her several times is ‘casually cruel’. She says things that are hurtful and it doesn’t even occur to her that what she’s saying could be causing the person she’s saying them to pain. She has three daughters. She treats them all very, very differently. There’s so many different levels to her. One the one hand, you’ve got this mother who, no matter how venomous her love is, does love her daughters. On the other hand, you’ve got a woman who has cancer and is suffering through chemotherapy. And then on the other hand, she is the wife of a husband who has vanished. You also have a woman who knows everybody’s secrets, never lets on that she knows everybody’s secrets, unless it benefits her to do so. So, she’s very, very multi-layered. It’s a very beefy role.”
Native American Issues
In “August: Osage County” actor Tamara Campbell plays the part of Johnna Monevata, the Cheyenne Housekeeper of the Weston Family. Johnna is the unbreakable thread on which the backbone of the story — hilarious and tragic, compassionate and merciless, insightful and inane—all hang.
For playwright Letts, the inclusion of a Native American character in his story was both personal and political.
“When you grow up in Oklahoma and you have Native American blood, that heritage is embedded in your DNA,” says Letts, who is himself of mixed blood. Letts father, Dennis, was a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Tribe. Along with European ancestry, he passed indigenous DNA on to his sons.
The character of the Cheyenne housekeeper, Johnna Monevata, is noteworthy for being one of the few authentic Native American representations on the national American stage. Johnna is meant to be seen living in her assigned quarters, the attic; the most remote, uninhabitable part of the entire house—a type of reservation. Johnna is meant to experience long periods of staged silence—perennially present, but rarely heard from.
“I really love the fact that it’s written by an Oklahoman author and that it happened not very far from here, where most of us grew up,” says Campbell. “Not only that but it delves into the family dynamic in such a way that most of us are afraid to talk about. We’re afraid to let other people see. There’s so much that… Everybody wants to believe we are perfect, that we’re completely happy.”
“I think that’s a lot of things people are going to question. They’re going to look at their own family dynamic because, across the board, I’m sure, at some point in everyone’s life there’s been some kind of dysfunction or you have been touched by something whether it has to do with alcohol, drugs, or forbidden love. This play hits so many notes.”
Strong Adult Subject Matter
Strong adult subject matter is included in the play.
“We understand that this play is controversial but we are convinced that ‘August: Osage County’ is a play that every theatergoer should experience at least once live. The movie really does not do the play justice,” says Pickens. “Patrons of Ponca Playhouse should understand that there is strong language and strong emotions during the performance. This is a play for adults and children will not be admitted to the production. Nonetheless, we believe that part of our mission at the Playhouse is to challenge our audience and this is a play that certainly meets that criteria — in spades.”
“The thing that I keep hearing people talk about in this play that they think makes it controversial is the language,” says Stuart. “Come see this play because it is so wonderful written. And the cast we’ve put together is so strong. And I think you’ll really be surprised. I think that after the first few minutes those f-bombs won’t offend you the way you think they will.”
“It’s just a really strong play,” says Marlys Cervantes, who plays oldest Weston sister Barbara. “I love dramas. I love things that keep me thinking after. This is one that does that. Tracy Letts is an Oklahoman, he still has family here, this is based in Oklahoma. He’s won a Pulitzer, a Tony… I mean, this has won just so many awards. It’s just a strong drama and I’m really proud to be a part of it.”
Why You Should See the Play
“People in Ponca City should come see the play because, number one, it’s a fantastic piece of writing. Letts won the Pulitzer Prize, he won the Tony’s, he’s won Drama Desk Awards. Tracy Letts is an American writing institution. He should be up there with all of the other big names, and he’s only in his fifties,” says Pickens. “Secondly, they should come and see it because it’s a good time. You go the theater to get away from what you do in your everyday lives, and that is exactly what this show offers. Yes, it’s drama… yes, it’s tense. But when you walk away from the show, you feel like you have seen something extraordinary. And that leads into what you take away from the show.”
“It is a show about being trapped, it’s a show about having a family that is dysfunctional to the point of being ludicrous. And yet, at the same time, it’s your family and you’ve gotta deal with it. How you deal with it can be everything from just not talking about the problems, to completely leaving the situation, to moving out of state and going somewhere completely different. And that is what this show is all about. When you leave the theater, if you have felt something other than, ‘Huh, I wonder what we should do for dinner..’ Then I think the art form has worked a little bit in our favor.”
Times and Location
“August: Osage County” will be presented at Ponca Playhouse at the Black Box Theatre at 301 South 1st Street on July 19, 20, 21, 22, 26, 27, 28, and 29.
“August: Osage County” is not a part of the regular Playhouse season. Tickets will be sold separately and can be purchased by calling 580-765-5360 or can be purchased on the web at: www.PoncaPlayhouse.com. Tickets can also be purchased at the ticket office, open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. The box office will also be open 30 minutes before the start of the performances for last minute sales.