August: Osage County has been widely produced since its inception, even garnering a place as a major motion picture. The play premiered at Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago in 2007. The production received a glowing review from the New York Times, particularly because of Deanna Dunagan’s portrayal of Violet Weston. Indeed Charles Isherwood wrote in his article for the Times that Dunagan’s commitment to Violet’s, “gleeful evisceration of her nearest and dearest in the course of three acts and three hours provides this gothic family saga with its fast-humming internal engine.” (Isherwood) The direction of Anna D. Shapiro is certainly what enabled Dunagan and the rest of the cast to shine in the original production. The fact that Shapiro is a good friend of the playwright himself speaks to the fact that this original production probably most closely resembled the original vision Letts held for the play. (Kompanek)
Once the play moved to Broadway at the Imperial Theatre, it received another radiant review from Charles Isherwood at the New York Times; however, the Washington Post’s Peter Marks was sorely disappointed in his experience of the piece, calling it, “a soapy drama with no guiding light.” (Marks) At the end of his review, Marks went so far as to recommend another play for audiences to see instead. The Imperial production retained nearly entirely the same cast and crew as the Steppenwolf production, with the exception of Madeleine Martin taking the place of Fawn Jonstin as Jean and Brian Kerwin replacing Rick Snyder in the role of Steve. The mixed reviews on what was in essence the same production though on a different stage speaks to the way in which different audiences receive a work. Whether or not Marks’ impression of the piece represented a large conglomerate of those who attended the play at the Imperial Theatre, the mere fact that he was able to have such an incredibly harsh reaction to something that someone else found to be so incredibly powerful is in and of itself a testament to the power of the piece to elicit either empathy or severe distaste.
Another notable production was at the ZACH Theatre in Austin, Texas. This 2011 production was unique because of its ability to create the multi-million dollar production on a relatively small budget and in a small space. The company utilized the fundamentals of the massive set that the play calls for, creating multiple levels and separate playing areas wile operating within the close proximity of each part of the set. The fact that the ZACH was able to produce the piece with limited resources and receive acclaimed reviews shows not only the strength of ZACH company, but also the strength of the story itself to captivate audiences. (Pressley)
From the Steppenwolf production we can see the original vision that Letts had for the play, and receive a base from which to build other interpretations. The varied reactions to the Imperial Theatre Production help us to understand how the near exact transfer of an acclaimed production to a new place with new audiences can result in harsh criticisms. The production at the ZACH is a reminder that the story is what is essential, and that with the right people and dedication, it can be told in a powerful way no matter the limitations.