“True West” is one of those rare productions in which all of the theater arts – writing, directing, acting, design – come together brilliantly.
Everything works in this funny, ferocious, blazing-fast Sam Shepard play. And by “works” I don’t mean everything is merely serviceable. I mean everything is inspired, down to the seemingly smaller details.
For instance, there’s Dean Bourland’s lighting design, which includes a row of lights on the floor at the front of the set. We soon discover these lights serve as kind of a reverse-blackout. Instead of the lights snapping off at the end of a scene, these lights snap on, freezing the actors in place. It’s jarring, stark and somehow right for this play.
Then there’s the sound composition by Bryant Moore, full of crickets and yelping coyotes. The beginning of the second act is introduced by the jagged, hammering chords of a guitar, perfectly matching the chaotic confusion of Shepard’s characters, who are in the midst of having their lives turned upside down.
We also hear a steady diet of Hank Williams and other long-dead country western artists. This is a way of cleverly softening us up for one of Shepard’s main themes: The “true” West is gone forever, if it ever really existed at all.
The terrific set by John Borland is a seemingly naturalistic kitchen of a Southern California tract house, yet floating above is a detached beam, with commemorative plates and houseplants. Somehow, this small detail conveys a feeling of detachment and free-floating anxiety – apt emotions for the drama playing out beneath it.
Then there’s the direction itself, by Braden Abraham.
He begins the play by having a character light a Bic and set it to a candle. It’s a subtle and effective beginning and it turns out to have its own apt symbolism as well. This play doesn’t merely start – it ignites.
Abraham sprinkles the production with these kinds of subtle, yet never self-conscious, touches.
Finally, of course, there are the real engines of “True West,” the acting and the script. Nathan Smith and Sean Cook are mesmerizing as the two squabbling brothers. On opening night, Smith played Lee, the big, bullying drunken brother, and Cook played Austin, the sensitive, nervous screenwriter. When you go, and I urge you to do so, you may see them in the opposite roles. They are switching roles for every performance.
This configuration seemed to be the natural one. Smith, a big man, played Lee with a perfect big-dumb-animal kind of swagger. He brandished a bottle of Bud like he was born with it, and once he even used it to punctuate a command to a cowering Austin, spraying him with every gesture. When he takes a golf club to his typewriter, you can see and feel the menace.
Cook is a much more slight man, and he played Austin with an almost Wally Cox-like comic milquetoast quality. In the first act he was cringing and submissive, but in the second act, fueled by Jack Daniels, Austin turns into a mini-whirlwind of rage and crazed energy, bouncing around the room, spewing destruction and showing off his new collection of toasters (he stole ‘em on a bet).
Some might think that Cook’s Austin is too nebbishy, but I found him original and highly effective.
I would like to go back and see the show with the roles switched. It will no doubt be wildly different, but I doubt if it will be less successful.
For one thing, the entire play runs on the theme that these two characters slowly take on the characteristics of the other.
For another thing, Shepard’s script rings so true it is nearly bulletproof – different interpretations will probably only uncover new layers.
This script is truly deserving of its reputation. It functions as a funny, funny black comedy about subjects such as Hollywood screenwriting (the brothers are trying to sell a screenplay), family dynamics (“don’t fight inside,” says mom while one brother strangles another with a telephone cord) and modern American life.
“They don’t need a TV anyway,” says Lee after stealing a TV from a neighborhood house. “I’m doing them a favor.”
Yet it has depths of commentary about the West, and how it has been tamed into suburban submission. The coyotes are symbolic: In the wild desert, they still howl. In the L.A. suburbs, they merely yelp.
But the old West doesn’t come off scot-free either. Their father, whom we never see, is symbolic of the less constructive traits of the West. He’s a drunk and a bankrupt and a ne’er do well. Lee, of course, takes after him.
This show races past with such energy, you may not have time to think about it all during the show. You’ll be too busy laughing, for one thing. But you’ll think about these themes, and more, for a long time afterward.
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