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A new script for family drama

After a trip to the theater, she searched for a more accurate portrayal of family life.

By Iris Fanger / December 10, 2008

On stage: Tracy Letts' family saga, 'August: Osage County,' is currently playing on Broadway.

Joan Marcu/AP/File

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On a recent visit to New York, my husband and I had tickets for two shows running on Broadway: The multiple Tony award-winning "August: Osage County" by Tracy Letts, and Horton Foote's "Dividing The Estate." These are plays about dysfunctional families, to use the now clichéd description, ruled by matriarchs controlling the family purse-strings and, it would seem, the psyches of children who resent them. And the brothers and sisters often do not get along. In terms of a theater experience, veteran actor Estelle Parsons delivers an unforgettable performance at age 80, scampering up and down several flights of stairs in the cut-out, dollhouselike setting of "August: Osage County." Elizabeth Ashley, matured from her early years on stage in complex ingénue roles, portrays a mother from Harrison, Texas, in "Dividing the Estate."

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Money is the shared central theme of these dramas – the children want it, and, feeling entitled to their share, the mothers hold it close. Neither play has a happily-ever-after outcome. Each closes with forebodings of more problems to come after the stage lights have dimmed.

The weekend made me think about the families that form our society. If it's true that theater must hold a mirror up to nature as Hamlet instructs the Players, are the images that Mr. Letts and Mr. Foote have given us accurate about the American family in the early 21st century?

As citizens, we are preparing to watch the Obamas move into the White House and revel at the type of residents they will be? In addition to the Obamas, I thought about some families we have known – and I beg to disagree with the relationships Letts and Foote have created, despite the hard economic times now affecting many of us.

One family that is close to me is led by a father and mother who emigrated from Japan a quarter-century ago. They could only find janitorial and domestic jobs – even though the father is a fine violinist and also plays an ancient Japanese instrument. They have raised two children to have lives better than the parents left behind them. Their son, who graduated from prep school and a fine college on full scholarship, now has a byline at one of our leading newspapers; their daughter, who graduated from one of the best women's colleges, works in a lab while she prepares for medical school. The family celebrates American and Japanese holidays together, and the now-grandparents baby-sit for two grandchildren, while continuing to work as laborers. Another extended family, living in the Midwest, has children scattered throughout the country. Two of the cousins, living in the same Oregon town, meet every Saturday morning to play basketball. Their parents – brother and sister – travel together each winter with their spouses.

My thoughts extended to my family's experience after a trip to Ellis Island. I remember the stories about my grandmother who arrived there more than 100 years ago, traveling alone with a baby and a toddler. Her husband had arrived earlier. Within eight years he had passed away, and she was left to raise four children with another on the way. The Singer sewing machine in our kitchen was a reminder that she took in sewing to support her family. Her children left school early to work. And a potential second husband was shown the door when he suggested putting her children up for adoption. Despite her trials, she always offered a relative or neighbor to sleep on the floor of her tenement apartment.

My mother, aunt, and uncle grew up into stalwarts of the middle class. My generation was educated into the mainstream of American life. These, too, are families that make up our national construct, perhaps in less dramatic lifestyles. But they have yet to attract a playwright's attention.

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