• Dec 4, 2014

From the Playbill: The Fruit of the Poisonous Tree

By Lydia Garcia

The Weston clan in August: Osage County have few rivals for utter marital dysfunction and family disintegration on the American stage, save perhaps for the Tyrone family’s consuming interdependence  in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, or George and Martha’s spousal savagery in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Like O’Neill and Albee, playwright Tracy Letts did not need to go far to find inspiration for his backbiting characters, instead drawing on his own family’s raw legacy of addiction and abuse to create his intensely autobiographical play.

Letts’ parents were loving and creative, likely serving as models for the happier days of Violet and Beverly’s relationship. Letts’ mother was the writer Billie Dean Letts, author of Where the Heart Is and other novels, while his father was the actor and literature professor Dennis Letts, who originated the role of Beverly Weston at Steppenwolf and performed it on Broadway until his death in 2008. However, it was Billie Letts’ childhood in a physically-violent home in post-Dust Bowl Oklahoma that gave her dramatist son an abundance of family trauma from which to draw.

Billie, an only child in the midst of a chaotic situation, spoke of taking on the role of homemaker and peacekeeper between her combative parents by the time she was 7 or 8, a not-unlikely scenario for young Barbara Weston. Letts was 10 years old when his maternal grandfather, William Gipson—a man born in Indian Territory before Oklahoma became a state in 1907—committed suicide after a life of poverty and hardship. Letts also had vivid memories of his grandmother Virginia’s attitudes and behavior, her spiraling pill addiction, and failed attempts at detox.

Writing August: Osage County was an act of working out Letts’ memories and meeting his grandmother anew. “I don’t condone or approve of any of her behavior, but I grew a kind of sympathy for my grandmother, and for Violet, over the process of this play,” Letts said. “Because despite all of those monstrous things she does and says, I don’t know she had a lot of choice. I don’t know that people necessarily choose to be bad. I think she was a product of her environment.”

Letts was anxious when he finally gave his mother an early draft of the play, but her reaction stunned him. “I think you’ve been very kind to my mother,” she said.