WHEN Through 8/26: Tue-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 3 and 7:30 PM

WHERE Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted

PRICE $20-$65

INFO 312-335-1650

In an interview with American Theatre magazine a few years ago, up-and-coming New York playwright Noah Haidle said, “I don’t want to see any representation or mimesis of reality on stage. That’s just outdated and can be done so much better in film and TV.” This attitude has been gaining currency over the last couple of decades, but thank God Tracy Letts hasn’t noticed or we might not have one of the best American plays of the last ten years receiving its world premiere at Steppenwolf. Even such finely crafted, disturbing films about troubled families as Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream and Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale can’t match the searing emotions and thematic brilliance of August: Osage County, a departure from Letts’s earlier work in its classical structure and epic scope.

August: Osage County is heartbreaking in its attention to emotional nuance and captivating in its gruff compassion. It’s also riotously funny. Set in a small town, it inevitably inspires comparison with such masterworks as Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Chekhov’s Three Sisters, but it never rides on the coattails of those plays. This work stands on its own.

Letts breaks every rule about holding a contemporary audience’s attention, using the classic three-act structure (with two intermissions) and taking three and a half hours to unfold his tale of the monumentally troubled Weston clan of Pawhuska, Oklahoma. Anna D. Shapiro’s beautifully orchestrated staging features a cast of 13, many of them Steppenwolf regulars at the height of their powers and capacity for vulnerability.

The play’s elegiac tone comes from T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men.” Family patriarch and retired academic Beverly (played with soulful weariness by Letts’s own father, Dennis) quotes from the poem in the first scene, while he’s interviewing a young Native American woman, Johnna Monevata, to be the housekeeper and caretaker for his cancer-stricken wife, Vi. Beverly explains the troubled marriage Eliot had with his first wife, Vivienne, to Johnna and gives her a book of Eliot’s poems. Quoting poetry is all Beverly can do–he no longer writes it, and his one acclaimed collection came out 40 years earlier. As his prospects vanished, Beverly and Vi became locked in emotional warfare fortified by pills for her and liquor for him. By the second scene Beverly has mysteriously disappeared. Alarmed, a host of family members–new combatants armed with devastating revelations–enters the oppressive house: it’s an unbearably hot August, and Vi keeps the place un-air-conditioned and tapes the blinds shut.

Eldest daughter Barbara arrives with her own estranged academic husband: he’s just left her for a student only a few years older than their pot-smoking 14-year-old daughter. Then there’s the mousy, secretive middle daughter, who receives news of stunning proportions, and the manic youngest sibling, who brings along her tool of a boyfriend. Vi’s hard-bitten sister, guileless brother-in-law, and beaten-down nephew round out the roster in this prairie version of the House of Atreus. The local sheriff is the classical messenger bearing bad tidings.

During this family crisis Johnna keeps the food coming and provides a quiet source of support, especially for the teenage girl. Yet Letts avoids the temptation to turn her into a shaman, and Kimberly Guerrero plays the role with admirably subtle, watchful matter-of-factness. Johnna’s character might seem underdeveloped–all we know is that her parents are dead and she needs a job. In other words, she’s like legions of working-class women of color who make money as home health-care workers. As an emotional cyclone whirls through Todd Rosenthal’s cleverly constructed three-story cutaway set, Johnna sits quietly in her attic room, reading first Eliot, then Beverly’s slim tome. It’s her nonjudgmental outsider status that allows her to deliver the play’s final benediction/curse–a lullaby that chillingly revisits “The Hollow Men.”

The cancer afflicting Vi is in her mouth–and she’s the source of the most rancorous revelations. As Vi, Deanna Dunagan gives one of the most horrifyingly beautiful performances I’ve ever seen. Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is like a cuddly, wisecracking Eve Arden by comparison. But Vi isn’t pure evil–she’s burdened with her own abusive childhood and mourns the loss of her brief happiness with Beverly, when his literary promise was untarnished. “We lived too hard and rose too high,” she tells her daughters. She’s passed her bitterness on to Barbara, nearly as shattering a character as Vi in Amy Morton’s performance.

Given the firsthand knowledge most have of the importance of gallows humor during times of upheaval, the black comedy of August: Osage County isn’t exactly a surprise. But few American playwrights are as adept at that mixture as Letts. Barbara, fed up with hearing about how hard her parents’ generation had it, barks out, “Why were they ‘the Greatest Generation?’ Because they were poor and hated Nazis?” The humor comes not only from Letts’s ripostes but from ingenious bits of stage business, like the highly incongruous ringtone of a cell phone during a family prayer. The only bits that don’t really work are a couple of scenes involving physical combat. When people are this good at hurting one another with words, fisticuffs are almost a relief.

The wrong director and cast might have turned the play’s delicate balance of deep-rooted sorrow and outrageously funny family pettiness into a cartoon of dysfunction, like an extended-play version of Mama’s Family or a Beth Henley-style show full of chicken-fried wackiness. Shapiro masterfully handles the overlapping dialogue and multiple agendas, and the performers give their complex characters an affecting humanity. All suffer from the syndrome of thwarted dreams: instead of having the blues, Barbara says, they have “the Plains.” By the end, when all but two people have left the house, a line from another Eliot poem, “Ash Wednesday,” came to mind: “We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): August: Osage County photo by Michael Brosilow.