NEW YORK — Tracy Letts’ soul never strays too far from the Midwest. Born and raised in Durant, Oklahoma, the playwright made it to New York by way of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company.
And he’s set his astounding hit Broadway play, ‘‘August: Osage County,’’ on the Oklahoma plains. After its Dec. 4 debut at the Imperial Theatre, critics hailed it as the best American play in decades and talk of Tony and Pulitzer Prize nominations fluttered along the Great White Way.
Letts shrugs off the praise, in that ‘‘all-in-a-day’s-work’’ sort of way that comes after an artist has found his creative footing, or perhaps after being consistently hailed by critics.
The 42-year-old was first an actor, and it seemed only natural to try his hand at writing for the stage. His first play, ‘‘Killer Joe,’’ in 1993, told the story of a drug dealer who plots to have his mother killed for the insurance money. Letts thought he’d do something small and cheap, since it was his first try at writing for the stage. He wasn’t expecting more than a three-week Chicago run, but the play was a hit, took on a life of its own and was staged in both London’s West End and off-Broadway in New York.
His second play, ‘‘Bug,’’ in 1996, was later made into a movie starring Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon, who also starred in the play. The third, ‘‘Man From Nebraska,’’ a Steppenwolf production, was nominated for a Pulitzer in 2004.
And now there’s ‘‘August: Osage County,’’ which opened on Broadway after a smash run in Chicago.
The play tells the story of the Weston family, and the ensemble cast in New York is almost identical to the Chicago run. Letts says the play is easy to relate to because the theme is universal — family.
‘‘This business about ... revisiting families — we keep coming back to them because it’s a common denominator to everyone,” he says. “Everyone has got issues in their families. And if they’re not, than they aren’t talking to each other.’’
From his family to yours
The tale is based on events in the playwright’s own family, though the finished product bears little resemblance to Letts’ family. His grandfather committed suicide when Letts was 10, and his grandmother spiraled into drug addiction over many years.
‘‘It’s an event that’s haunted me more or less for 30 years,’’ says Letts, relaxed in Western shirt and jeans at a Times Square eatery. ‘‘I was looking at it through the eyes of a child, surrounded by adults going through a very traumatic period.’’
The only character in ‘‘August’’ that is drawn from real life is Violet — the family matriarch with a fondness for prescription drugs — played by Deanna Dunagan; Letts cast his father Dennis as Violet’s husband. Most of the cast had worked together for years at Steppenwolf, Frances Guinan and Rondi Reed, who portray husband and wife in ‘‘August,’’ first played a couple 30 years ago.
Director and Steppenwolf member Anna D. Shapiro and Letts knew that given the type of play, about old relationships and family relationships, they wanted as much ensemble participation as they could get. ‘‘There’s a shorthand that’s established when you know someone and have worked with them for such a long period of time,’’ he says. ‘‘I think it shows on stage.’’
Giving it time
Letts says he thinks about plays for years before he sits down to write them. And he writes quickly, in a couple of weeks. With ‘‘August,’’ he wrote the first act, put it away for six months and then came back to it.
Darren Cole, who produced ‘‘Killer Joe’’ at the Soho Playhouse off-Broadway, said Letts’ has an innate ability to reach the audience.
‘‘Plays usually have a plot that carries your interest throughout, or it has really great interesting characters, and it’s a character study,’’ he said. ‘‘But Tracy can do great character studies that happen to be involved in really terrific and interesting plots. It fires on all levels.’’
Letts can’t say for sure why his plays resound with the audience, especially considering his characters are all deeply troubled. In ‘‘Bug,’’ one character yanks out his tooth with a pair of pliers; in ‘‘August,’’ Violet slices her family members apart with her razor-sharp tongue.
‘‘There is no drama without conflict. How one chooses to express that conflict is deeply personal and subjective,’’ Letts says. ‘‘I don’t know — nature versus nurture? Is it chemical? I don’t know what accounts for my own world view.’’
He says he watches his works obsessively until opening night, until he can’t identify them as his anymore. ‘‘It’s a very bizarre thing,’’ he says. ‘‘It’s hard when you write the next play, you think, ‘I can’t write a play — nobody can write a play,’ and you look at the plays published with your name and think, ‘Those really wrote themselves.’ ’’
From Oklahoma to Chicago
But he’s been writing most of his life. Letts was raised in Durant, Okla., the youngest of three boys to English-teacher parents who both retired early and have successful second careers. His mother, Billie, wrote the novel Where the Heart Is, which later was made into a movie starring Natalie Portman and Judd. Letts’ older brother is a librarian and his middle brother is a musician.
Letts left Oklahoma when he was 17, skipping college to go straight into acting. He moved to Dallas for a few years before arriving in Chicago.
‘‘It wasn’t so much about leaving that part of the country, as discovering Chicago,’’ says Letts, who wound up in the city after following a girlfriend. ‘‘I fell in love with the theater scene there.’’
And he especially loved Steppenwolf, a world-renowned ensemble group started in the mid-1970s by Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney and Jeff Perry. The company now has more than 40 members who write, direct and act. Letts joined officially in 2002, but had been working with the group for years before.
Letts says he’s primarily an actor. Besides his latest play, ‘‘Superior Donuts,’’ which will be performed this summer in Chicago, Letts has recently acted in ‘‘Betrayal’’ with ‘‘August’’ cast members Amy Morton and Ian Barford, and appeared in ‘‘The Pillowman,’’ which Morton directed. On TV, he’s had small roles in ‘‘Prison Break,’’ ‘‘Judging Amy’’ and ‘‘Seinfeld.’’
Festivus, for the rest of us
In the leaner years, Letts left Chicago for Los Angeles, where he lived for about four years, working sporadically. His biggest gig was a part on the notorious ‘‘Festivus’’ episode of NBC’s ‘‘Seinfeld.’’ But he thought he was failing miserably.
‘‘The business was brutal and the people in the business were brutal,’’ Letts recalls. ‘‘I felt, ultimately, at the end of four years my options were to hide under the bed or go out and be humiliated, so I returned to Chicago and I’m really glad I did.’’
The city suits him, he says, and Steppenwolf is his home.
‘‘No matter what happens, no matter how bad I get savaged, I get to go back to Steppenwolf and go back to work, as an actor, as a writer and as an artistic director,’’ he says. ‘‘I have a place to go and work that supports me as an artist and that’s very rare in our business.’’
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