Notes from the Dramaturg
Putting Tracy Letts and Man from Nebraska in Context
Tracy Letts was born on July 4th, 1965 in Tulsa, Oklahoma to writer Billie Letts and teacher-turned-actor Dennis Letts. It is, perhaps, ironic that a writer born on the day of American independence grew up to write plays that examine, sometimes harshly, dysfunction in American society.
Letts moved to Chicago at age 20 to pursue acting. According to his The Steppenwolf Theatre Company, an ensemble he would later join, he was also ‘following a girl.’ He became fascinated with the gritty, in-your-face style that the Steppenwolf company exemplified, and his first two plays, Killer Joe and Bug, were crafted with the company in mind. Time magazine went so far as to describe the plays as “two slices of nasty trailer-park noir.”
Killer Joe, “Blackly comic, ferociously violent and blatantly sexual, Letts’ tabloid tale,” reports the Chicago Sun-Times, “was a slam-bang, obscenity-laced, full-frontal, unapologetically in-your-face assault. At its center were the members of the Smith family, Texas “trailer trash” for whom everything that could possibly go wrong does after they hire Joe Cooper — a local police detective who moonlights as a hit man — to murder the alcoholic mother whose life insurance money is needed to pay her son’s debts.” Killer Joe ran for eight months at the Lab space at Evanston’s Next Theatre, then transferred to the Edinburgh Festival, London’s West End, Off Broadway, and made into a film released this past August.
Bug, which premiered at the Gate Theatre in London in 1996, follows Peter, who “turns up in Agnes's Oklahoma motel room and insinuates his way into her life,” details The Financial Times. “He seems to bring with him an infestation of aphids. Peter is also not a little paranoid about surveillance, insisting on drawn curtains, locked doors and ultimately sheets of tinfoil around the room to jam any ‘transmissions.’ The nasty little mites appear at their most toothsome when one or other of the central couple is placed under severe stress – when they are bugged, in other words, they are comprehensively bugged.”
Following the closing of Bug, Letts returned home to earn money for a year, moved to Los Angeles in 1997 where he was dissatisfied, and returned to Chicago to join the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2002.
Letts’ style changed drastically with his next play, Man from Nebraska, which premiered at Steppenwolf in November, 2003. “The depravity, the grotesquery, the manic speed, noise, laughs, and—above all—rage of Bug and Killer Joe were suddenly gone,” notes Chicagomag.com. “In their place, the tale of Ken Carpenter, a middle-class, middle-aged Baptist with a long marriage, two grown daughters, and a dying mother, who loses his faith in God and goes off to figure out what to do next.”
However, Letts’ common themes did not disappear entirely. As the Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips points out, the playwright manages to find room in all that quiet for a sex scene involving wrist restraints: "All of a sudden the handcuffs come out and you think, ‘Well, there's Tracy Letts again.’"
Letts’ next play, August: Osage County, premiered at the Steppenwolf in June, 2007. The play revolves around the Weston clan, “who must return to their three-story home in rural Oklahoma after their patriarch disappears to get to the heart of the matter,” according to Steppenwolf. “With rich insight and brilliant humor, Letts paints a vivid portrait of a Midwestern family at a turning point.” August: Osage County is,in fact, based on true story. According to Time, Letts’ maternal grandfather committed suicide when he was ten years old, and his grandmother “spiraled into drug addiction.”
In an interview with Chicago Tonight, Letts comments “I’ve never met that person from a happy, cheery family life, and I think that’s one of the reasons for the success of August: Osage County. I can remember in the earliest performances of the play, seeing the audience respond, and the most gratifying and remarkable thing: you would see members of the audience who did not know each other speaking to each other and checking in, saying, ‘This is my family, this is my family too, this is our family, just as screwed up and dysfunctional as everybody else.”’
During an interview with Steppenwolf, Letts also says “When reviewing the biographies of the actors who comprise Steppenwolf, I was struck by a nearly common denominator: place of birth. From Lincoln, Illinois to Council Bluffs, Iowa, from Mankato, Minnesota to my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, the majority of ensemble members are small-town Midwestern people. Their stories are my stories. We share the history of families – mainly descendants of Irish or German or Dutch homesteaders – who forged their ethos from hardscrabble Depression years through the Baby Boom. We share the multi-generational conflict that inevitably arises when Those Who Have Nothing have willed their pride and guilt to Those Who Have Wanted for Nothing. August: Osage County is my attempt to explore this generational schism and the Midwestern sensibility with an ensemble of like-minded artists.”
Before rehearsal even began for August, Letts had already started on his next play, Superior Donuts, which premiered in the summer of 2008 at Steppenwolf. Superior Donuts tells the story of Arthur Pryzbyszewski, a donut-shop owner in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. Arthur hires Franco Wicks, a local Black teenager, and their common desire to better the shop is derailed by American greed.
“Tracy is able to write about things that lots of other people don’t want to touch, including the thin line between good and evil,” said William Friedkin, director of the film adaptations of both Killer Joe and Bug, as well as Man From Nebraska at California’s South Coast Repertory in 2006.
Letts continues to perform as well, and is starring in the revival of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which opened at the Steppenwolf in 2010 and is running currently on Broadway.
-Kristen Joyce, Dramaturg