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Buried Secrets

Tossing guilt around like a hand grenade, Theatre Tulsa tackles the hard truth that with family, often the deepest wounds come from the people closest to us in Tracy Letts’ "August: Osage County."

Gina Conroy
January 28, 2020

Most people try to hide their sordid family secrets. Not Tulsa playwright Tracy Letts. Not only did he air his family’s dirty laundry for the entire world to see, but he also won a Pulitzer Prize for it.

Lisa Stefanic, who’s acted and directed with Theatre Tulsa for 35 years, is thrilled to bring his story to life onstage. “It’s a privilege to have this opportunity to work with one of his pieces,” says Stefanic about Oklahoma-born Letts, whom she calls the “homeboy who has all those accolades.”

With such a high profile story that has not only had a run on Broadway but the big screen starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, pulling it off is not without its challenges.

“I want to make this our show, not like any other productions [or movie] out there,” says Stefanic. “This is ours. We dissect it. We study it. We create characters with the material given to us. We let that play grow and develop as we nurture and feed it with all indigestion and discomfort that comes with that. Then we go into labor [tech week] and give birth to a beautiful, truthful, and insightful show.”

Described as a darkly comedic drama, August: Osage County was inspired by real-life events surrounding Letts’ maternal grandfather’s suicide. Letts was 10 years old. If suicide wasn’t enough trauma for a young boy to experience, he watched his grandmother’s addiction to painkillers not only affect her but impact his family through the generations.  

The play explores the ties that bind us and how strong they are when buried secrets are revealed. It delves into why people make the choices they make and that these choices have consequences, sometimes tragic. Ultimately, it tells the hard truth that most times, the deepest wounds come from the people closest to us: family.

It’s a story of a family not haunted by ghosts of the past, but by the present, says Stefanic. And it shows “that the more self-centered your focus is, the more damaging and destructive the impact will be.”

Not intended for young children, the heavy subject matter, which includes drugs, alcohol, and sex as well as dark psychological and disturbing relationships, can make some very uncomfortable. For others, it may hit too close to home, which is why Vivica Walkenbach, who plays Violet, the bitter, pill-popping matriarch grandmother, believes this very powerfully written show should come with a warning label. If you have any real bad psychological problems, she says, this play could be a trigger.

“They are not a happy family,” says Walkenbach. “They fight constantly, and there is a lot of accusatory guilt in this play.” Like most dysfunctional families, they toss guilt around like a hand grenade. “You did this. I didn’t do that. All blame and anger.”

It’s not hard to see why all three daughters are in destructive relationships or divorcing, and why the family is falling apart.

Vivica Walkenbach as Violet (Photo: Josh New)
Vivica Walkenbach as Violet (Photo: Josh New)

Despite all the dark themes and family dysfunction, this play keeps drawing audiences to the theaters like onlookers to a train wreck. You may wonder what’s so appealing about watching a family fall apart, but it isn’t without humor; dark humor, that is.

“There are a lot of amusing moments, but they are cutting and biting and meant to be destructive at the same time,” says Walkenbach. “These people have to make fun of things, or it becomes a horror show. You can’t sit through three hours of it, or you’re depressed. You have to find something funny about it.”

At the helm of this sinking familial ship is grandmother Violet. “She’s a slash and burn type of person and has a tongue she uses as a knife. Everybody is afraid of that tongue,” says Walkenbach. “If somebody says something to her she doesn’t like, she one-ups them. She cuts them down. She can manipulate and twist and make you think you are wrong all the time, and she’s a genius at it.”

Despite her harsh, unrelenting treatment of her family, the audience may muster up some sympathy for Violet. “She’s a tough nut to crack,” Walkenbach says. And throughout the play, you come to understand why.

“She was raised in an abusive home by an abusive mother,” Walkenbach says. While some abused children grow up to be the opposite of their abusive parent, Violet became her mother. As the play progresses, it’s easy to see why she is a master manipulator; it’s all about survival.

“The abuse [which is revealed in the show] was a horrible thing,” says Walkenbach. “If people see her relive it, people are going to go ‘Oh, God well, OK. If we don’t like her, at least we can understand why she is this way.’”

The mantra “I will be here when everybody else is gone. I’m the strongest one” is spoken by Violet in some way, shape, or form throughout the show and points to her inner demons she has not yet overcome.

“She’s very unhappy with her life. She’s got cancer and probably not going to live much longer,” Walkenbach says. “She believes nobody’s stronger than her, and she walks on people to prove her point.”

Despite the complicated, dark subject matter, abusive family relationships — past and present — this play connects with audiences on so many levels, and that’s a good thing.

“Attending this show, or any performance for that matter, can promote a connection and an understanding of the human condition,” says Stefanic. “It also allows the audience to feel emotions they often don’t. Sometimes the actors can open their emotional veins and expose what the audience can’t.”

Even though it may hit too close to home and trigger memories for some, it can also be a starting point for much-needed healing. “It certainly would be a conversation piece for any partner, friend, or spouse; a lot to talk about over coffee, dessert, or wine for sure,” says Stefanic.

For those who are fortunate enough not to be able to relate to this dysfunctional Oklahoma family, Stefanic says, “There’s likely something in the storyline that goes beyond your life experiences, and we can learn from that. There is always a connection to someone about something in a show.”

August: Osage County
Tulsa Performing Arts Center
110 E. 2nd St. | Tulsa
Feb. 15: 8 p.m.
Feb. 16: 2 p.m.
Feb. 21: 8 p.m.
Feb. 22: 2 p.m., 8 p.m.
Feb. 23: 2 p.m.