April 23, 2021

Movie and Play – August: Osage County

As noted in my post on “The Book Thief,” adaptations can be tricky, either faithfully evoking the original work or veering off inadvertently in a different direction. The film “August: Osage County” sticks to much of the original play but misses the biting tone of the original Steppenwolf play production.

If you had the great good fortune to see the Tracy Letts play in Chicago before its triumphant transfer to Broadway, you may remember the bristling energy on stage as actors at the top of their game dug into the acerbic dialogue. As an audience member, you found yourself laughing at the black humor and the Noel Coward-esque repartee albeit with Oklahoma accents.

Meryl Streep brilliantly playing her most vile character to date is the center of this vortex of secrets and suffering. Julia Roberts gives a surprisingly masterful performance as Violet’s favorite daughter, Barbara. The rest of the cast reads like a dream line-up: Sam Shepard, Margo Martindale, Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney, Juliette Lewis, Chris Cooper and Julianne Nicholson. All are good, but the pin-prick sparks are missing in the production as a whole. Benedict Cumberbatch, so good as the PBS Sherlock Holmes, underwhelms in his role as Violet’s awkward nephew “Little Charles.” This much acting power should have generated atomic emotional interactions. Let us just say this is no “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”

My husband who had not seen the play actually enjoyed the movie, so maybe I have been spoiled by the memory of a well nigh perfect Chicago evening at the theater. The Steppenwolf production went on to 648 performances on Broadway, a Pulitzer Prize for playwright/actor Tracy Letts, a run in London and a US national tour in 2009. As for Tonys, the play garnered a best actress in a play award for Deanna Dunnagan, a best featured actress award for Rondi Reed, best direction of a play for Anna D. Shapiro and an award for best play. Oscars wins for the movie: none. The play definitely trumps the movie memory.

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