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.
Hermione Hoby, of The Telegraph, writes in her article on the film, “‘Tolstoy told us that: All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,’ but even the great Russian’s eyes would have popped at the Weston clan, whose dysfunctions are pyrotechnic in their scale and intensity.” Charles Isherwood, of The New York Times, used the same Tolstoy quote when reviewing the opening of the play in 2007, and for good reason.
I have been very lucky with the family I was born into. Every family has their problems and mine has no shortage, but I am very grateful for what the fates handed me. It is this second family that is an ongoing process. I do have what I would call a platonic family, made up of close cherished friends that challenge and encourage me to improve, to love openly, and to be a more vulnerable person, but there is an elusive other family, maybe what I would even call a third family, that I still seek – a romantic one. A romantic partner is not the pinnacle of family life for me, but it is a summit I crave climbing nonetheless. I think that is why each of the Weston girls tough choices now make sense to me.
After examining their decisions through their attachments to their various tribes, I can see why they leave and why they stay – they were clinging to what they had found, not what they had inherited. At the end of the play, Barbara must make the hard choice to follow the family she has made for herself (in this case her daughter, since she and her husband are going through a divorce), and leave behind the one she was born into – to leave her mother alone. The third sister Ivy makes her own romantic family – in a surprising way I won’t spoil – that is both tender and discomforting. Karen also tries to make her own romantic family. Each of these sisters follows a new tribe, and each with their own imperfect situations.
While researching this film and play further, I found another layer to the creation of the story of the Weston family, and learned that Pulitzer Prize winning playwright (and screenwriter) Tracy Letts was inspired by Howard Starks’ poem August: Osage County from his only book, Family Album: a Collection of Poetry – published in 1995. Towards the end of the poem, which mixes a matriarchs decay with her surroundings and family, there is a stanza that goes, “Standing there, / we look up from the dry clods / and the durable grey stone, upwards— / expectantly— / westwards— / where the clouds grow dark.” It is fitting that the end of the poem that inspired the Weston's story is filled with bleak and decaying imagery.
In The Telegraph interview, Roberts shines when answering why these sorts of stories are told:
You know…” she says, with a sigh, “it’s conversation. And it’s also the examination of that thing they call ‘the human condition’, whatever that means to people. How do we not be our parents. Or how do we be that of our parents that we like but avoid what we don’t like. So that’s why we make these sorts of movies and write these sorts of plays and poems and sonnets and novels, because it makes us all ask those questions and look for better, clearer answers.
Even in the face of new storms, it is the enduring strength of the Weston girls that I find inspiring. The drama has that solace and honesty in the end: that even when they seem without options, they each make their own worlds to live in, happy or not. I find that a comforting light in the dark of August: Osage County, and in family – we can choose to stay or to leave whether we know it or not.