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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Role reversal

Sean Cook, playing the part of Lee, gets mad while Nathan Smith as Austin gets drunk in the kitchen during a scene in Sam Shepard's
Jim Kershner / Staff writer

Take two characters who are brothers. Then take two actors.

Now, mix ‘n’ match.

Sean Cook and Nathan Smith play both Austin and Lee, the squabbling brothers in the Interplayers production of Sam Shepard’s 1980 play, “True West.”

It all depends on which performance you attend.

The two Seattle actors will alternate the two main roles – switching every day – in this intense comedy-drama about two brothers and the myth of the American West.

This role-reversing idea has been done before in “True West,” most notably by Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly in an acclaimed 2000 Broadway production.

It’s an idea that is more than just a gimmick – it actually fits the themes of the play. During the play, the screenwriter Austin and the petty criminal alcoholic Lee slowly begin to take on some of the characteristics of the other.

“Many people have talked about these two characters being two halves of Shepard himself,” said Smith.

Still, how did Smith feel when director Braden Abraham first approached him with the role-swapping idea?

“Hesitant. Excited. Thrilled,” said Smith. “Hesitant, because it’s a heck of a lot of work.”

That’s for sure. Not only do they each have to learn all of the lines for both characters, they have to find a way to embody each character, physically and psychologically, and then switch back the next day.

“It’s the most challenging artistic task I’ve ever taken on,” said Cook. “It has been a monster of a learning curve.”

At least one of the challenges is physical. Austin is supposed to be the younger, smaller brother, while Lee is more of a bully.

“Lee is more physically menacing, and that is not the role I would normally be cast in,” said Cook. “I had to work hard to find Lee inside of me.”

“I would definitely be more of a Lee,” said Smith. “I’ve got a couple of inches on him (Cook) and outweigh him by 30-40 pounds. So part of the challenge is making him my big brother that I am afraid of.”

It helps that Cook, Smith and director Abraham are old friends and collaborators from their years at Western Washington University and more recently with their Seattle-based theater troupe, the Possibilities.

“I would never even have considered doing this unless I was working with Sean and Braden,” said Smith.

Cook and Smith will be following a distinguished line of actors who have taken on these roles, including Peter Boyle and Tommy Lee Jones in the original 1980 Broadway production, and John Malkovich and Gary Sinise in a legendary Steppenwolf Theater production in Chicago in 1982 (no, neither pair swapped roles).

“True West” is a play that actors love to sink their teeth into, possibly because it was written by a fellow actor. Shepard was an Oscar nominee for his role in “The Right Stuff.”

Shepard’s script finds Austin and Lee in their mother’s home in California. They proceed to fight about their parents, their histories, the Western screenplay they are writing and the true meaning of the American West.

New York Times critic Frank Rich called the play “one of the theater’s most precious natural resources.”

The Interplayers production also features two local actors, Kathie Doyle-Lipe and Jamie Flanery.

Smith said he hoped that audiences would attend twice, to see each actor do both roles.

“I think it’s a completely different show, with different energies,” said Smith. “Both of our Austins are similar, but our Lees are really different.”

Interplayers is making it easy to see two shows. Present your ticket stubs and you can get tickets for another performance for $10.