Randall King has been thinking about four pages of dialogue for the last four years.
“There’s not a word in it that isn’t pivotal,” he says,
The pivotal words come from former professor and poet Beverly Weston in the play August: Osage County, opening this week at San Jose Stage. The Weston family patriarch’s pensive musings—spoken from his study between sips of whiskey—launch the play’s tragicomic rollercoaster of intergenerational drama.
“It has depth we’re all really excited about exploring,” King says, joking that the play is like “fifty pounds of potatoes in a three-pound sack.”
Much like the Weston family, San Jose Stage’s production of August: Osage County has been through incalculable twists and turns since discussions first began in 2018. At that point, the play was slated to open in 2020, a year which dealt a heavy blow to live performances all around the world. As both artistic director and an actor in the play, King led his team through the pandemic with a theater veteran’s fierce commitment to the charge that “the show must go on,” even if it went on a little later than hoped. Fittingly, the title of the current thirty-ninth season is “Resilience.”
“I have felt we’ve been in the starting gate for two years,” King says, using a metaphor pulled from his childhood in rodeo. “All these actors have been sitting in the wings, waiting for the chance to do this. In my almost fifty years doing this, I’ve never experienced this kind of focus. The energy is incredible.”
That’s good because focus and energy are two elements necessary for a family tale as intense as August: Osage County.
When, early in the play, Beverly leaves his acerbic wife, Violet, under mysterious circumstances, he incites a reunion both comedic and heartbreaking when his three adult daughters and their families return to their rural Oklahoma home. There, they find alcoholism, drug addiction and the general madness of Beverly and Violet’s long and unhappy marriage have led to some absurd extremes, piles of poetry books strewn about everywhere and window shades duct-taped shut. Though the parents might try to keep the light from pouring in on their troubled past, the return of their daughters opens some long-shut doors.
August: Osage County won playwright Tracy Letts a Pulitzer in 2008 and has only achieved deeper meaning with time. King notes uncanny resonances with the broader history of the United States, saying the troubles of the Weston family mirror the nation’s own. Beverly also resembles, in part, another American archetype: Willy Loman, patriarch of Arthur Miller’s classic Death of a Salesman. However, King notes, “Beverly leaves his family at the beginning of this disintegration of the American dream. [Letts] has really slipped Death of a Salesman into the twenty-first century.”
In this era of palpable division at home and war abroad, King cannot help but see the Weston family’s acts of repetition and self-consumption as symbolic. Opening his rehearsal notes, he reads a question he’s been pondering aloud: “Do the walls of our domiciles now reflect the walls of our national borders?”
Theatergoers will also recognize a now familiar situation in the play: a family cooped up in close quarters with little to do besides sit and rehash the past with more honesty than ever before. While there is certainly sadness, King stresses the play also “flips the coin over,” masterfully employing laughter at least as often as tears throughout its classical three-act structure. He is also adamant that the play, with its dedication to Letts’ script, is much funnier than the 2013 Meryl Streep/Julia Roberts film adaptation. With characters as lovably ridiculous as Violet’s blustery and unfiltered sister, Mattie Fae, and events as shocking as an all-out indoor brawl amidst antique china, there is certainly plenty of humor to be found.
And audience members will surely take comfort from an enduring message that our society often works to hide: no family is perfect.
“We’re all the same,” King says. “That’s one of the beauties of Letts’ piece: it opened a door to saying, ‘Here’s who we are. Take the skeletons out of the closet, and let’s embrace them. Then we can heal.’”
Opens Wed, 7:30pm, $32+
San Jose Stage, San Jose