Judy’s granddaughter was sitting at a traffic light in Tulsa recently and happened to glance over. The man waiting on the red light next to her was George Clooney in a Lamborghini. You’re not apt to experience that auspicious moment again in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Clooney is in Bartlesville, a small town about 45 miles from here, to produce a movie based on the award winning play, “August: Osage County.” The play was written by Tracy Letts, son of novelist Billie Letts and Dennis Letts, a former literature professor.
Osage County is in the northern part of Oklahoma. It is the home of the federally recognized Osage Nation, and the county seat of Pawhuska.
The plot: A former college professor and one-time poet disappears from his residence in a rural area outside Pawhuska, Oklahoma.
He has just hired a housekeeper to care for the home and keep an eye on his pill-popping wife. But when he vanishes, generations of the Weston family descend upon the three-story home.
The Westons have so many sins and secrets they are hiding, that Tulsa native Tracy Letts created what many have deemed one of the great American plays, out of all their volcanic scenes.
This play, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the 2008 Tony Award, was named after a poem written by Howard Starks, who was born in Shidler, Oklahoma and died in 2003.
The play/movie is not a purely autobiographical account. But one member of the clan unexpectedly ended up playing a role in the play.
So stars have been sited around this region, Tulsa being the big city of choice. The cast includes: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Abigail Breslin, Juliette Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch (British star of Sherlock on BBC), Sam Shepard, Dermot Mulroney, Ewan McGregor, Misty Upham (Frozen River star), Margo Martindale (Texas native and actor), and Julianne Nicholson (TV actor). The production is expected to run for eight weeks. The producer is John Wells.
The original casting choice for patriarch Beverly Weston dropped out shortly before the Chicago production. Letts’ father, Dennis, who, after retirement, had launched a second career as an actor, took over the part. Unfortunately, shortly after the production transferred to Broadway, Dennis was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. In spite of this, he made his Broadway debut and juggled chemotherapy with eight shows a week, until a mere three weeks before his death in February 2008.
Letts admitted that he is unable to watch other actors performing the role in subsequent productions, as he doesn’t want to tamper with the memory of his father’s performance. The opportunity to work with his father was “an irreplaceable experience. No play I do for the rest of my life will match that.”
Here is an excerpt from the poem written by Howard Starks: “August: Osage County”
“Dust hangs heavy on the dull catalpas;
The cicadas are scraping interminably
At the heat-thickened air -
No rain in three weeks, no real breeze all day.
In the dim room
The blinds grimly endure the deadly light,
Protecting the machined air,
As the watchers watch the old lady die.”
Tracy Letts said he stole the title with deference, yet without apology. “Howard, I’m sure, would have it no other way. I dedicate this play to his memory.”