Anna Shapiro remembers first reading "August: Osage County" late one night in the wintertime."I thought I'd doze off and finish in the morning," she recalls. "But I couldn't put it down." When she got to the end, she rang playwright Tracy Letts, also author of "Killer Joe," "Bug" (now a movie) and "Man From Nebraska."
"I think you are a fantastic writer," she told him. "And I have no idea who you are."
They've been friends for 20 years.
Certainly Letts confounds a lot of purveyors of his work. What we know: He is a hard-working actor and ensemble member at Steppenwolf Theatre. He was born on the 4th of July in Tulsa, in a region that supplies both the settings and unruly aesthetic of his play -- a kind of Plains Gothic. He dropped out of college, worked for a time in theater in Dallas and wound up here by the early '90s.
"August," now in previews at Steppenwolf, is his largest and most ambitious undertaking to date. And like the rest, it's slightly scary. "Bug," filmed by William Friedkin from Letts' screenplay, tells of a man and woman (Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd) who engage in a deadly, mutual paranoid delusion in a remote hotel room they blow up. "Killer Joe," his first work , has been called crazy and repulsive -- by its fans. One bit has a woman simulate a sex act with a drumstick.
"My wife and I first read 'Killer Joe,' and told him, 'You are a brilliant writer,'" says his father, Dennis Letts, an English teacher turned actor who plays a part in "August" here. "But we hate this play."
"Then, he got a $5,000 grant, and we were shocked," adds his mother, Billie, author of "Where the Heart Is," an Oprah Winfrey book selection and also a movie. "Why would anyone give money to that?"
" 'Killer Joe' was an angry howl,' " Letts admits. "I was 25 when I wrote it, and now I'm 41. It's a strong cup of coffee. I put a lot of rage and pain in that play, and excitement too. I wanted to make my mark."
When "Killer Joe" premiered in Evanston in 1993, Letts, as an actor, seemed dark, brooding, Byronic and gaunt. Today, a little heavier, he seems comfortable in his own skin. Chatting during a rehearsal break for "August," Letts was relaxed and quick to laugh. He exudes the warmth and robust humor that seems to characterize the remarkable Letts family as a whole.
"I was the class clown," Billie Letts recalls from her own childhood. "That gets you into trouble. I remember having to write on the blackboard a hundred times once, 'I will not cuss anymore.' "
The Letts household in the southeastern Oklahoma college burg of Durant (165 miles south of Tulsa) was something of a magnet for professors, writers and intellectuals, a kind of Okie salon. "If, at a salon, you eat beans and cornbread," cautions Dennis Letts. "I remember Tracy at one of those gatherings, in a diaper, carrying his bottle, singing the line from 'Hair,' 'Masturbation can be fun.' "
That was Tracy circa age 2.
"It was great in the way that small-town life can be great," Tracy Letts recalls. "But school was not great," Tracy Letts recalls. "But school was not easy. I struggled with the social aspect. I was a tiny kid and a [smart aleck]. I got beat up a lot.
"And I don't remember a day of my life when I didn't hear the 'n' word or a reference to devil worshipers."
Yet, that region is integral to his work.
"It's something I know, it's in my body, it's a rhythm I feel and understand," the playwright says. "If you take the four corners of the U.S. mainland and draw lines from each to the center of the country, it's Oklahoma City. It goes way beyond merely being landlocked. It's more country locked.
"And there are a lot of artists from Oklahoma, a lot of actors, musicians, writers," he adds. "There's definitely a feeling there that you're in a kind of bubble."
One with a complex history. "The unimaginable poverty of the Dust Bowl, the Indian blood, the way land was stolen from the Indians, all that leaves a mark that doesn't go away," Letts says.
Family in college town
Arts & Entertainment
Steppenwolf's confounding sage
Actor/playwright Tracy Letts isn't afraid to shock his audience
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