by Sarah Ollove

I recently finished work on the Arden Theatre Company’s production of August: Osage County. I usually work as a dramaturg, and so while involved in rehearsals, I try to keep some separation between myself and the production in order to be a more useful outside out. However, August: Osage County changed things up a bit: I was hired as the Assistant Director—with Ed Sobel on your staff, you’ve got August: Osage County dramaturgy covered! Assistant directing gave me a chance to listen to the play a lot, and notice subtle choices made by Tracy Letts as a result. I kept returning to the way he employed names throughout the text. Almost every character gets a first and last name, and not just in the character list, but planted in the text of the play itself. For the actors, names became a one-word way to sum up everything a character felt about the name-bearer—whether adoration as when Karen delivers her fiancé Steve’s name as if it is a present, exhaustion when Charlie tries to reign in effusive wife Mattie Fae, or astonishment at the passage of time when Sheriff Gilbeau and Barbara meet again after many years. Director Terry Nolen also took advantage, encouraging subtle emphases to be placed on certain parts of character’s names, such as the “Little” rather than the “Charles” in “Little Charles” to convey an identity of smallness steeped in family history. As I watched, such small touches added up until attacking a name became tantamount to attacking the person themselves—an incredible accomplishment by the playwright and production.

Honesty is never the best policy in the Weston household, where people horde information like nuclear bombs. Words in this world are weapons capable of decimating lives within seconds. They carry the greatest ability to hurt—and this in a play in which people endure slaps, choking, fists, cancer, plate-smashing, and a particularly memorable cast iron frying pan. In such a world, names, intimately tied up in identity, become missiles–used kindly they lend strength to the bearer, used cruelly, they destroy him. This fact is not lost on the Westons of Oklahoma who employ names as a means by which to exert control and demonstrate power: mocking them, forgetting them, changing them, and occasionally invoking them.

From the early moments of her time onstage, middle sister Ivy Weston wages a subtle war on behalf of her lover (and cousin), Little Charles Aiken. Known as Little Charles, Ivy wants the family to start calling him Charles. Little Charles has spent his entire life with the diminutive and it shows—he is deferential, downcast, and defeated. Named after his father, Charlie Aiken, Little Charles has never strayed far from the house and hasn’t been able to hold a job or a relationship–he lives in a state of arrested development from which Ivy wants to rescue him.

Ivy, desperate to leave her life behind and escape to New York after forty-four years in Pawhuska, seeks to change her man by forcing others to change his name: “Charles. His name is Charles,” she mutters after his failed attempt to stand up for himself at the end of dinner in Act II. Despite Ivy’s best efforts to separate man and moniker, Little Charles’s willingness to answer to the name reflects the character—at the end of the play, Little Charles is still Little Charles—both in name and manner.

But even more than just keeping Little Charles in his place, mother Violet and older sister Barbara use it to keep Ivy in hers. In her final confrontation with her mother before running off to New York, Ivy attempts to shake the bonds of her family and embrace freedom in her new life with “Charles,” but Barbara won’t let her get the words out:

IVY:Charles and I—
BARBARA: Little Charles—
IVY: Charles and I—
BARBARA: Little Charles—
IVY: Barbara—
BARBARA: You have to say ‘Little Charles’ or she won’t know who you’re talking
about.
IVY: Little Charles and I … (Barbara relents.)

Ivy loses the name game to Barbara, but wins a victory—despite Barbara’s attempts to prevent her from telling Violet her plans, Ivy gains the right to share her news. But immediately after Ivy concedes the name, Violet tears her world apart, completely shattering any possibility of a new life for Ivy or Little Charles:

IVY: Little Charles and I … (Barbara relents. Ivy will finally get to say the
words.) Little Charles and I are—
VIOLET: Little Charles and you are brother and sister. I know that.

No matter how badly Ivy wants to believe that she and Little Charles can start new lives, they cannot change. Their relationship is doomed from the beginning, as is Ivy’s one-woman rebellion against “Little” Charles.

Whereas Ivy tries to build Little Charles up into Charles, older sister Barbara uses names to tear others down. She refuses to get the name of husband Bill’s young lover right, despite his constant correction, stating her intention explicitly: “I know her stupid name. At least do me the courtesy of recognizing when I’m demeaning you.” By not using the name, she trivializes both Cindy (the lover) and Bill in an attempt to minimize the emotional damage inflicted by the idea of Cindy. She uses a similar tactic after Bill and their daughter Jean leave her: “Jean, that’s a stupid name…Know why we named her that? Bill’s a big Jean Seberg fan.” It was Bill’s choice to name Jean, and it was a bad one. Barbara diminishes Jean, and by extension Bill, by attacking her name.

Barbara learned this tactic from her mother, Violet, who’s ability to sum up her disgust with someone in a single word drives the play. From the opening moments of the play, we are clearly in Violet’s house, a place she defends vigorously. She dismisses youngest daughter Karen’s fiancé by mocking his last name:

STEVE: Steve Heidebrect
VIOLET: Hide-the-what?
STEVE: Heidebrecht
VIOLET: Hide-a-burr …

Steve, used to being in charge wherever he goes, is very quickly put in his place by Violet who proves she’s the alpha in this house. In the space of thirty seconds, Steve no longer registers in her consciousness and she does not interact directly with him for the remainder of the play.

While she launches a missile at Steve, Violet takes a different approach with the woman she considers a true intruder. Before he vanishes, Beverly Weston hires a local Native American girl, Johnna, to cook, clean, and take care of Violet. Johnna remains in a world apart, a mostly silent observer to the Weston family’s verbal sparring. Though a constant presence washing dishes, folding laundry, preparing food, Johnna barely speaks and rarely intervenes in the life of the family. Violet takes particular exception to Johnna, and displays her displeasure largely by refusing to use Johnna’s name, referring to her instead as “that Indian girl” or just “that Indian.” Whether she actually forgets Johnna’s name in the haze of her pill addiction or pretends to forget, she conveys the message that Johnna just isn’t worth remembering.

By Tracy Letts’s admission, August: Osage County is meant in some ways as a meditation on America. The stand-off between Vi and Johnna brings to mind the appropriation of Native American names and the attempts by Native American tribes to reclaim their heritage. Violet refuses to use Johnna’s name, substituting it with vaguely offensive generalizations while Johnna has gone back to her family’s original paternal name, “Monevata” instead of the Anglicanized “Youngbird.” Johnna rejects assimilation in her name and also in the house, spending all her time in peripheral places, the kitchen or in her tiny attic room. Violet complains about her presence constantly, despite reaping the rewards of it in biscuits and gravy, chicken dinners, and clean towels. They reach an impasse: Violet unwilling to accept Johnna, Johnna determined to keep
her job and her dignity.

The play ends with Violet, her meanness having stripped her of her family, stumbling around her house calling out the names of those who have left her: Barbara, Ivy, Bev. In the end, names become less weapons than ghosts of the people who bore them. At first commanding their presence, she ends by begging them to appear. When they do not, she turns to the only name she has left, the one she has avoided thus far, Johnna. She chants it over and over as she crawls from the ground floor to Johnna’s attic room. Names, wielded so carefully by characters throughout the play, are here rendered almost meaningless in their repetition, used imprecisely and ineffectually, the tools of a woman who’s ability to communicate has broken down almost completely–the last words of ruined woman.

© Sarah Ollove (October 18, 2011)

by Tracy Letts; directed by Terrence J. Nolen; sets by Dan Conway; costumes by Alison Roberts; lighting by Thom Weaver; sound designed by James Sugg; stage manager Alec E. Ferrell. At the F. Otto Haas Stage, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106. For tickets, call 215.922.1122. Now through October 30th, 2011.

WITH: Elena Araoz (Johnna Monevata), Carla Belver (Violet Weston), Kevin Bergen (Sheriff Deon Gilbeau), Corinna Burns (Ivy Weston), Charlie DelMarcelle (Little Charles Aiken), Dylan Gelula (Jean Fordham), Grace Gonglewski (Barbara Fordham), Eric Hissom (Bill Fordham), David Howey (Beverly Weston), Anthony Lawton (Steve Heidebrecht), Mary Martello (Mattie Fae Aiken), Paul L. Nolan (Charlie Aiken), Kathryn Petersen (Karen Weston).

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