In Tracy Letts' play, "August: Osage County," an extended family reunites in a rural part of Oklahoma.
Their mother, Violet Weston, has cancer, smokes cigarettes and drinks. Their father, Beverly, is an alcoholic poet. Their grown children return in the wake of a tragedy, with conflicts destined to follow.
Or as cast member Jenna Lockman put it, "there's layers upon layers upon layers of secrets and agitations that just build and build and build until they explode."
It's part of a long tradition of family plays, a subject that writers revisit and audiences respond to time and again, according to Charles Oates, who's directing a production at the University of Montana's School of Theatre & Dance.
He sees Letts as part of a lineage of that extends through Sam Shepard and all the way back to the Greeks.
"It's an inevitable thing," Oates said. " 'King Lear' is a family play. 'Oedipus Rex' is a family play. We're just drawn to that because we have our own families to deal with, for better or worse."
Letts, who drew on his upbringing in Durant, Oklahoma, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2008 for the script. Oates said the writing has a "refined rawness," and Letts doesn't set any restrictions on what his characters might say, all while remaining clever and witty — the play is billed as a "dark comedy."
With references to poets like T.S. Eliot, Hart Crane and John Berryman, the play has a literary underpinning that Oates believes should have broad appeal in a writers' town. In general, though, the story is universal, according to its student cast.
"Even though this is a very specific family with a very, very specific and chaotic set of circumstances, it also still feels like your family, or a family that you know," said Kady Nordstorm, a junior playing Violet. And it's funny, too, coming at moments when you feel that you shouldn't laugh.
"That's so much of the human condition — realizing when we're being ridiculous," she said. When you see it as people, and then seeing it in front of you and being able to recognize how ridiculous it is, and then recognize that you relate to that and see that in yourself on stage," she said.
Mike Monsos, the school's director, said there's "a great deal of discussion that goes into the season selection, but the foremost reason scripts are chosen are because they fulfill needs in the educational experience for our students."
He said that "August" is "a script that has very quickly been catapulted into an American classic and provides challenging and exciting acting and design opportunities for theater students. It provides a nice balance and counterpoint to the remainder of the season and is an important play for audiences to see and experience."
The lead roles, such as Violet and her daughter Barbara, are demanding, with arcs that extend across three hours of stage time, Oates said.
Violet is played by Nordstrom, who's pursuing a BFA in acting. She was in last semester's "White Christmas" and last spring's "In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play."
This play, in comparison, is "a marathon in every sense. It's a physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually taxing show, and so as a performer you really have to reserve your energy and keep the momentum going, and use that to your advantage, or else it's really easy to get really exhausted really fast," she said.
In developing her take on Violet, who's 40 years older than her, Nordstrom kept in mind the hard upbringing that someone Violet's age would have experienced. "She has fought with everything she has to get where she is, and she doesn't want to lose any of it. It's because she's holding on so tightly and fighting so hard that she ends up losing all of it, because she pushes too hard," she said.
Many of the characters are middle-aged and older — in the film version, Meryl Streep played Violet and Sam Shepard played Beverly. The UM cast is student only, providing an valuable opportunity to play strong roles by a strong writer, Oates said.
Oates is a retired emeritus faculty member from the University of California-San Diego, where he taught from 1996 to 2017. He's performed and toured around the country and Europe, including many summers spent in Missoula. He's guest teaching this semester and was invited to direct.
Oates, who said he lost his hair in his 20s, was cast in older roles all the time. "I would not have wanted to have been stopped from playing a great role because there was somebody who was 20 years out of college who wanted to play Shylock, too," he said.
Lockman, a senior majoring in acting, said "August" is a new and rewarding experience for her — she's interested in experimental, black-box theater and has previously performed in the smaller Masquer Theater on campus in "Summer and Smoke" last fall and "Everyman" last spring. (She was also in "Legally Blonde: The Musical" in the larger Montana Theatre.)
"It's actually been a very interesting experience for me to stretch the boundaries of what I'm comfortable with. I'm still confident in wanting to go forward with experimental theater, but I'm very happy that I got to experience classic American canon," she said.
She, too, said the length is demanding. She spends last four to five scenes on stage "bouncing in between completely different emotional landscapes," which is daunting emotionally and physically.
Her character has been shifted into the role of an "enforcer" as her mother's health declines, and so Lockman has worked to develop the weight of years' worth of experience that can come to bear in a scene.
"There's so much she's dealing with at any given time, so that's been one of the most interesting experiences for me — how to be going through such a huge emotional life at any given moment and how it can shift in a second," she said.
Oates said that the playwright did include a contrast to the Weston family in the form of Johnna (Riley Jones), a young Cheyenne woman hired as as a housekeeper and cook.
"She does that job brilliantly, but she also turns out to be a force for good in the chaotic household," he wrote in an email. "She is grounded and sensitive to everything that goes on, even going so far as to physically protecting a young girl and serves as the moral center of the play. She is not only fascinating as a character; her presence highlights the many references to the play's setting on the Great Plains. Various members of the Weston family talk about the hardships of 'life on these plains,' the place of Native people in contemporary life and of the genocide of the past."
The ending, he said, will have more to say about that.