Theater’s ‘August’ softens story for film

The drama “August: Osage County,” so gripping that I saw it twice at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre in 2011, won the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for best play. It’s also among the most depressing pieces of theater written in my lifetime.

That wouldn’t do for the Weinstein Company, which pinned its hopes for a Best Picture Oscar on the film Tracy Letts adapted from his own script. So Letts and director John Wells whacked 45 minutes from the narrative, tacked on a slightly redemptive ending and softened the story around the edges just a bit.

No one will confuse the results with “Miracle on 34th Street.” But the piece that once went down like a burning glass of straight rye whiskey now seems like a bracing scotch and soda.

The framework remains intact. Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) goes missing, leaving pill-addicted wife Violet (Meryl Streep) alone in their house, except for the caretaker he hired to help her.

Daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Lewis) and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) come home, followed by kindly Uncle Charles (Chris Cooper) and carping Aunt Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale). All three of the children are in relationships likely to fail: Barbara is separated from her spouse (Ewan McGregor), Karen is engaged to a guy (Dermot Mulroney) who hits on any female out of middle school, and Ivy thinks her soulmate is her backward first cousin (Benedict Cumberbatch, struggling to seem foolish).

Over a long weekend, we see inappropriate behavior of all kinds. Letts’ play suggests that this family is as doomed by Fate as any in Greek tragedy: They’ll continue to make disastrous choices, even knowing what those mean.

The movie indicates the pattern can be broken, at least once in a while. Though the play made Violet an irredeemable harpy, Streep’s version inspires more pity. (Do you need to be told that hers is one of the great performances of 2013? In fact, this is probably the best ensemble in a film this year, with Lewis and Martindale standing out.)

Adriano Goldman’s balmy, big-sky cinematography suggests Osage County might not be such a bad place to live, and Gustavo Santaolalla’s gentle music softens the despair. At the last, after all the recriminations and rages, the end credits show us photos of each of the characters smiling, as though they’d been transported to Hollywood Heaven – a Weinstein touch if ever I saw one.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer