ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
One of the biggest hits on Broadway this winter is a play that went there straight from Chicago. It's called "August: Osage County." It's a production of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
(Soundbite of play "August: Osage County")
Ms. DEANNA DUNAGAN (Actress): (As Violet Weston) There's an Indian in my house.
Ms. AMY MORTON (Actress): (As Barbara Fordham) Native Americans now, mom.
Ms. DUNAGAN: (As Violet Weston) Who calls that? Who makes that decision?
Ms. MORTON: (As Barbara Fordham) It's what they like to be called.
Ms. DUNAGAN: (As Violet Weston) They aren't more native than me.
Ms. MORTON: (As Barbara Fordham) In fact, they are.
Ms. DUNAGAN: (As Violet Weston) What's wrong with the Indian?
Ms. MORTON: (As Barbara Fordham) Why is it so hard to just call people what they want?
Ms. DUNAGAN: (As Violet Weston) Let's just call the dinosaurs Native Americans while we're at it?
SIEGEL: That's actor Deanna Dunagan who plays Violet Weston arguing with Amy Morton playing her eldest daughter, Barbara Fordham. "August: Osage County" is set near contemporary Tulsa. The extended Weston clan might just as well have been cursed like the House of Atreus of Ancient Greece.
(Soundbite of play "August: Osage County")
Unidentified Woman #1: You're a drug addict. That is the truth.
Ms. DUNAGAN: (As Violet Weston) I'm a drug addict. These are my best friends, and they never let me down. You try to get them away from me and I'll eat you alive.
SIEGEL: You name a problem and they've got it - substance abuse, adultery, abandonment, and worse, not to mention that old standby, boredom in a small town. Here's what's unusual about the Westons in playwright Tracy Letts's work - at least half of the time, we're laughing at them.
Ms. MORTON: (As Barbara Fordham) I do not believe this. You're sitting here, watching the baseball game, drinking beers. Don't you have any sense of what's going on around you? This situation is (unintelligible).
Ms, DENNIS LETTS (Actor): (As Beverly Weston) I'm supposed to sit here like a statue? You're drinking whisky.
Ms. MORTON: (As Barbara Fordham) I'm having a cocktail.
SIEGEL: Tracy Letts, the playwright, and his father, Dennis Letts, who plays the patriarch of the Weston family join us now from our bureau in New York. Welcome to the program, both of you.
Mr. TRACY LETTS (Playwright, "August: Osage County") Thank you.
Mr. LETTS: Thank you.
SIEGEL: And first, Tracy, please tell me that you have some connection to Oklahoma and you didn't actually go up in Cambridge, Massachusetts and just researched this very well.
Mr. T. LETTS: No. In fact, I'm born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was raised in a small town called Durant, Oklahoma. My - both my parents were born in Oklahoma. My grandparents were Okies. No, no, there's a long Oklahoma tradition in my family.
SIEGEL: And Dennis Letts, did you preside over a great, sprawling, multigenerational dysfunctional family in Oklahoma?
Mr. D. LETTS: I presided over a small dysfunctional family in Oklahoma.
SIEGEL: Of which Tracy is the product?
Mr. D. LETTS: Tracy is part of that.
SIEGEL: You know, what I found interesting about "August: Osage County" is this. I can imagine seeing the script and some director just looking at the words and saying, this is about sorrow and disappointment and the terrible cruelties that people in a family might commit against one another and play it like Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night." But in fact, instead you're telling him, play for laughs half the time. This is - what is this? Is it comedy? Is it melodrama? How do you describe it, Tracy?
Mr. T. LETTS: Well, there is a lot of comedy in the play. But I think the comedy, for the most part, comes from a very real place, comes from, it comes from the known. I think people laugh at what they recognize. And I think a lot of it - as theatrical as it may be, a lot of it is recognizable human behavior, family behavior.
SIEGEL: I'd like you to talk about your own relationship. And Dennis Letts, what it's like playing in a play written by your own son?
Mr. D. LETTS: It's very interesting because, of course, I am a retired college professor, as is the character. I'm just not alcoholic and haven't disappeared yet. So it's been an absolutely marvelous experience because I've been around this type of people. I've known some of them now through Tracy for years. They're kind of a family and they accepted some of us into this family.
SIEGEL: Did you write the part with your father in mind for the story?
Mr. T. LETTS: Not at all. In fact, I had somebody else cast in the part. And they dropped out. And they got - the fellow got a job. And some names were suggested to me I wasn't excited about. And I said, no, I need a cowboy poet. And the director and the artistic director at Steppenwolf said, well, how about your father? And I said, well, how about my father? And we thought that was a great idea.
SIEGEL: So Dennis, part of your virtue here is you were available is what he says?
Mr. D. LETTS: Right, that's exactly right. He called me on the phone and said, would you do this? And I'm thinking, perhaps I was going to say no, and I immediately said yes.
SIEGEL: And when did it dawn on you that this would mean you'd be starring on Broadway in a big (unintelligible)?
Mr. D. LETTS: Well, that didn't dawn on me until about August after we had started rehearsals, I suppose in May. No, I had no idea that we'd wind up in Broadway. I thought we were going to Chicago and run for a couple of months, and I'd go back to my warm Oklahoma were the ice comes down and wipes out a territory.
SIEGEL: You think they've got Oklahoma right in this production?
Mr. D. LETTS: Yes, they have part of - yes, part of Oklahoma right. He lived there for a lifetime. And he describes that space pretty well.
SIEGEL: What have you heard from Oklahomans who've gone to see your rendition of "Osage County" onstage?
Mr. T. LETTS: They're delighted to see themselves represented on the stage even if it's not always in the most flattering way. You don't see a lot of plays about Oklahoma. You don't see a lot of plays with Oklahoma characters, or actually, you don't see a lot of plays with characters from a lot of the United States. And so I think they're delighted to see themselves represented in some fashion, and to see things that they recognize.
SIEGEL: Yeah, they're not singing in this one, which is the most famous appearance of Oklahomans, I guess…
Mr. D. LETTS: Right.
SIEGEL: …on the stage. But this is in Oklahoma where there are retired college professors and where there are people popping pills as much as they might in any big coastal metropolis. I guess…
Mr. D. LETTS: I want to tell you that the daily Oklahoman is also prominent in Oklahoma. And they're lead editorial one day was about this play. They don't put it in the category even with "The Grapes of Wrath," which is controversial in Oklahoma. They don't put it in that category or Lynn Riggs' "Green Grow the Lilacs" or "Oklahoma." They think this is a bit off.
SIEGEL: A bit off. They think that you've missed the majesty and the down-home plain truths of Oklahoma?
Mr. D. LETTS: It's not quite as heehaw(ph) as they would like for it to be.
SIEGEL: Well, your dad is keeping you honest there, Tracy.
Mr. T. LETTS: Absolutely.
SIEGEL: Getting some panning from back home. Well, Tracy Letts, playwright, author of "August: Osage County" and Dennis Letts who plays Beverly Weston in "August: Osage County," thanks to both of you for talking with us today.
Mr. T. LETTS: Thank you very much.
Mr. D. LETTS: Thank you.