The Life and Family of August: Osage County

From poem, to play, to film, the journey of August: Osage County continues to grow like the tumbleweeds of its setting in Oklahoma, spanning time over decades of reinvention and rebirth.

Shortly before the film was released, I learned from a friend in passing that August: Osage County was a play before a movie, and he lent me his copy to read. I got around to finally reading through the darkly-endearing and tumultuous family life of the Weston clan and was hooked. The fights, verbal, emotional, and sometimes even physical, unfolded in the dialog like a sucker punch of words – something you’re helpless to stop but just can’t turn away from.

A Playbill synopsis of the play reads, “When the family patriarch vanishes, the Westons return to rural Oklahoma to care for their afflicted, manipulative mother Violet. Armed with prescription drugs and paranoid mood swings, Violet reigns over the home as family secrets unfold.” I had missed my chance to see the film in theaters, preferring to finish reading the play before seeing the movie, but almost a year after it came out I watched the equally gutting and unsettling performance while immobilized by the flu.

I recall, as I watched the movie in my sickened state, that the film addresses something that reading the play had left me wanting, a better understanding of the sister, Karen Weston. The three sisters (the eldest Barbara, the family glue Ivy, and the fallible Karen) stood out to me as the heart of the story, and not in fact the mother Violet. Out of all the characters, I understood Karen's motivations the least on the page. Complicated love history and skeevy fiance read clear, but the choice she makes later to stay with her fiance, even after he hits on and gets high with her very underage niece, didn’t sit right.

Why did she pick him over her family? It was a murky area I wanted cleared up, and after seeing the film version, with the character played by rocker and actress Juliette Lewis, it was her performance that helped me understand that Karen wasn’t staying with her philandering fiance because she loved him, but because she was lying to herself that things would work out. That his actions, his mistreatment of her and her family, did not measure up to the man she had known him to be. Hoped him to be. This became especially clear to me as she cried during her lines, “It's not cut and dried, it lives where everything lives: somewhere in the middle.” Lewis’ performance of this line from the play, gave new clarity to her character and shaded Karen with a real depth I had not seen before.

What I know, and what this film and play helped remind me of, is the sentiment that if you’re lucky, you get two families in life. The one you’re born into, and the one you make – picking up others along the way to forge another home. I remembered a Grey’s Anatomy quote that summarizes it well:

There's an old proverb that says you can't choose your family. You take what the fates hand you. And like them or not, love them or not, understand them or not, you cope. Then there's the school of thought that says the family you're born into is simply a starting point. They feed you, and clothe you, and take care of you until you're ready to go out into the world and find your tribe.

Where both ideas fall short on, and what Karen is an example of, is the fact that the second family you pick may be no better than what you came from. They too, may be the wrong choice.