Tracy Letts on the origin of the poison in 'August: Osage County'

Note: The following interview between “August: Osage County” playwright Tracy Letts and journalist John Moore was first published in The Denver Post on July 26, 2009.

Tracy Letts

By John Moore

The Westons of Oklahoma are one of the most messed-up families to ever bicker and barb their way onto a stage. Their history is riddled with abuse, addiction and more secrets than the CIA. Like their guns, they keep their acidic tongues locked and loaded at all times.

So what does it tell playwright Tracy Letts about the state of the American family that the most common response to his Pulitzer Prize-winning play August: Osage County is some variation of, “That’s my family!”?

“It tells me that it’s (bleeped) up,” Letts said with a laugh.

“But if it’s common to us all, then there is also hope, in a sense,” he said. “It’s hopeful in the way that we can identify it and maybe even laugh about it.”

At the center of this modern Dust Bowl is the poisonous pill-popping matriarch, Violet. She has cancer of the mouth — medically and metaphorically. Violet has no switch to prevent her from blurting the most vicious things that come to her mind. She pops out furious epithets — most aimed at her own adult daughters — as quickly as she pops in pills. Her spawn all bear varying degrees of inherited burns they will surely pass on to their own children.

How evil is Violet? Why, she even blasts Colorado.

“It’s not hard to do!” the character says in the play.

When the patriarch disappears, you fully understand why he might have committed suicide.

The Westons are a lot of things, but they certainly aren’t portrayed here as redneck hicks who’ve never read a book. The missing patriarch is a college professor and writer based partly on Letts’ own father.

The Westons have been compared to the Lomans of Death of a Salesman and the Tyrones of Long Day’s Journey Into Night — though the Westons are far funnier.

Violet already must rank among the greatest female characters written for the stage. Letts, who also wrote Bug and The Man from Nebraska, would love to take full credit for inventing her. But the truth is, he didn’t have to look far for inspiration.

“Well, she’s my grandmother,” said Letts, who wrote the play in large part to work out his childhood memories of her. He took from her Violet’s inclination and attitude, he said, if not in word. “My grandmother perhaps wasn’t capable of the language that Violet is,” he said.

He was nervous when he gave his mother an early draft of the play, but her reaction astonished him. She told him, “I think you’ve been very kind to my mother.”

“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.”

And that was one of extreme poverty and ignorance.

Oklahoma is best known in literature from Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl epic, The Grapes of Wrath. And in many ways, August: Osage County tells the story of the Okies who stayed behind. Okies like the Westons — and the Lettses.

“I’m not far removed from the people who stayed, so this is very close to the bone for me,” said Letts. “My grandfather was born in Indian territory before Oklahoma was even a state. So these are people who actually did live through the Dust Bowl. All those people from that generation went through incredible hardship. The Dust Bowl did a number on a lot of people. It inflicted a lot of damage.”

Before Letts began writing the play, his mother gave him his grandmother’s diary from when she was 12. What was remarkable about it was how unremarkable it was.

“It’s just what any young girl might think about, write about, dream about,” Letts said.

“But then when you consider all the damage that happened to any person of her generation growing up the way she did. … My grandmother went to bed hungry. She was married at 15 and she was a mother at 16. And her own mother was a real monster. Obviously, that behavior is learned, and it does get passed down, and it takes a real leap to try to break that cycle.”

But an incendiary play like Osage naturally makes people wonder whether Letts loves or hates his birthplace.

“Oh I absolutely love and hate Oklahoma at the same time,” he said. One thing he’s learned in a writing career that has taken him around the world: “People are just as mean wherever you go.”

It’s still “science fiction” to Letts how his play stormed New York, leading to both the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize. But he’s sadly serious when he says, “the day I won the Pulitzer was certainly one of the worst days of my life.”

That’s because his father, Dennis Letts, wasn’t there to share it with him. Dennis was not only the inspiration for the play’s missing patriarch, Beverly — he originated the role, and played it until his death in February 2008.

“Dad got sick as we were going to Broadway, and he chose to go on,” Letts said. “It was such a blessing that Dad and I got a chance to do this together. But I have to tell you, when he died, I just wanted to punch anyone in the nose who told me how lucky I was. I just lost my dad.”

That blood connection is just one reason it’s even more important to Letts how his play is received in cities like Denver than in New York.

“I tried to really charge this cast with a kind of missionary zeal about taking this play out to the rest of the country,” he said. “It’s one thing to have success in Chicago or New York or L.A., but this play isn’t about people who live there. It’s about the rest of us.

“I love so many of the people I know who have come from Oklahoma. People who are not only good, smart, thoughtful people but who have a unique character because it’s been born out of that place. It’s cinderblock building against a Big Sky.”

“It was important to me that people there get a chance to see themselves portrayed in a more realistic light.”

Acid tongues and all.

August: Osage County: Ticket information

• Written by Tracy Letts
• Directed by Bernie Cardell
• Presented by Vintage Theatre, 1468 Dayton St., Aurora 80010 MAP IT
• Sept. 1-Oct. 15
• Tickets $25-$30
• For tickets, call 303-856-7830 or go to

Performance schedule:
• Fridays and Saturdays and Monday, Sept. 18 at 7:30 p.m.
• Sundays at 2:30 p.m.

Cast list:

• Deb Persoff: Violet Weston
Roger Hudson: Beverly Weston
Haley Johnson: Barbara Fordham
Kelly Uhlenhopp: Ivy Weston
Lauren Bahlman: Karen Weston
Marc Stith: Bill Fordham
Kaitlin Weinstein: Jean Fordham
Andrew Uhlenhopp: Steve Heidebrecht
Darcy Kennedy: Mattie Fae Aiken
John Ashton: Charlie Aiken
Brandon Palmer: Little Charlie Aiken
Emily Gerhard: Johnna Monevata
Stephen Krusoe: Sheriff Deon Gilbeau

Selected NewsCenter coverage of August: Osage County:
John Wells comes home to talk Meryl Streep and August: Osage County

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