A house is most emphatically not a home in Tracy Letts' August: Osage County. In a Broadway season highlighted by new plays, including the homegrown The Farnsworth Invention and the made-in-the-UK Rock ‘n’ Roll and The Seafarer, none has attracted as much attention as this import from the venerable Steppenwolf Theatre Company. The ecstatic reviews and brisk box office that greeted the show last summer in Chicago have been repeated in New York, which welcomed the mega-dysfunctional Weston family when they migrated to the Imperial Theatre in December.
Letts, whose past shockers Killer Joe and Bug ran Off Broadway, takes an acid look at Oklahomans that is a far cry from Rodgers and Hammerstein. The show opens with patriarch Beverly Weston (played by Letts' father, Dennis), a failed poet, abruptly abandoning the family tree. Trying to make sense of his disappearance are his three daughters, Barbara (Amy Morton), Ivy (Sally Murphy), and Karen (Mariann Mayberry), who, trailing their own issues behind them, return to their Plains State home, with some reluctance. And no wonder: Ruling the roost is their pill-popping mother, Violet (Deanna Dunagan). Despite having mouth cancer, the unshrinking Violet has enough tongue left to lash her daughters with, and extra vitriol besides for assorted family members, hired help, and visitors who arrive over the course of the play's three turbulent, hilarious, and, at times, quite moving acts, under Anna D. Shapiro's razor-sharp direction.
Fashioning a nest for these vipers is scenic designer Todd Rosenthal, who, like just about everyone involved, is a long-time member of the much more agreeable Steppenwolf ensemble. Rosenthal put an entire three-story-tall house on stage as the piece evolved, or, rather, the bones of one. The designer had worked with the playwright before, on a show that has yet to premiere in New York, The Man from Nebraska. “He likes his sets to be very replete,” Rosenthal says. “For August, he had three detailed pages of description specifying a nine-room house and what the space needed to look like. The challenge for Anna and me was that its architecture was very tied in with the pacing of the story. There's a lot of simultaneous action: As someone walks down the stairs, there's something going on in the kitchen or a scene wrapping up downstage right.”
Thought was given to “animation and wagons and turntables” to put the play in motion, but Rosenthal quickly nixed that. “The house needed to be indelible and permanent and non-moving.” Once that notion was approved, Rosenthal planned an entire structure, with a roof and walls. “I figured we had to start there,” he recalls. “But then we were hugely over budget, and Annie [lighting designer Ann G. Wrightson] was concerned we wouldn't be able to access different rooms. So I went into the technical director's office the day before we were starting to build the set in Chicago, and I simply tore chunks off the model I had built, trying to make it more affordable and accessible. Afterward I said, ‘You know, this looks better.’ It was more skeletal, which led to the concept of a skeleton of a house and its bone color. And it helped Annie, who with a solid piece of roof in the way was having trouble lighting the second-floor landing; when that was gone, she could hide her lights in its ceiling.”
The autobiographical details remained intact throughout the remodeling. “In the kitchen, for example, Tracy wanted a lot of Coke bottles, to indicate that it's used more for storage than anything else,” Rosenthal says. “The dining room is intentionally too small and inhospitable to accommodate the dozen people packed in there in the second act. But the people, though rural, have academic backgrounds and had traveled. There's a painting based on a specific Picasso, props like seashells, and books of poetry in Beverly's study on the ground floor. What he really wanted was for the house to look frozen in time, that nothing had happened there stylistically since the ‘70s.” Outside influences on the design included the house in Grant Wood's seminal painting American Gothic and stills of an attic, “kind of floating up there in space,” from Charles Laughton's spooky 1955 film The Night of the Hunter. “That really jump-started the way the show would look. We started at the attic and worked our way down.”
The transfer required a lowering of the house so that audiences can see the third-floor attic on the smaller New York stage, where key scenes including the final one play out. “Broadway is built for box sets that don't go up more than 12',” says Rosenthal, who is making his Broadway debut with the show. “The people in the back row can't see halfway past the proscenium. And with the fire curtain, we couldn't use some of the real estate downstage. You can really accomplish a lot more in regional theatre. But working with Hudson Scenic was just fantastic, and they were blown away by how much drafting and full-color modeling we had done, something I always do in regional theatre.” Kevin Depinet, Matthew D. Jordan, Martin Andrew Orlowicz, and Stephen T. Sorenson are the assistant scenic designers.
August: Osage County is currently scheduled to run through April 13, but expect it to have a lively half-life at end-of-season awards ceremonies and in regional productions. “Everyone who sees it finds some relevance in it,” says Rosenthal. “The set puts an ornate frame around the show, making it a twisted family portrait.”