They say “blood is thicker than water,” but what if the family members in question are more like oil and water?
Brothers Austin and Lee, the stars of Sam Shepard’s “True West,” couldn’t be more different.
Austin (Kyle Ross) is a Hollywood screenwriter and a married father while Lee (Ricky St. Martin), the older brother, is a drifter and a thief.
The play opens on the brothers in their mother’s home, where Austin is staying while their mother (Kay Poland) is in Alaska. Lee has shown up unexpectedly, and it’s the first time the two have seen each other in five years.
Austin is working on a screenplay while Lee, beer in hand, peppers Austin with questions.
Lee is frequently agitated, and it’s up to Austin to calm him down.
After Austin meets with Hollywood producer Saul Kimmer (David Sharon) about one of his screenplays, Lee inserts himself into the situation by suggesting he and Kimmer golf together and pitching a story of his own.
From that point on, the brothers slowly begin to switch roles as nuisance and peacekeeper.
Lake City Playhouse’s production of “True West,” directed by Brooke Wood, opens Friday and runs through March 31.
“True West” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1983.
After Shepard died in 2017, the playwright was on the minds of the Lake City Playhouse play selection committee.
“We decided on ‘True West,’ one, because of cast size, and also because it’s one that people recognize but it’s still so fantastically written and so true to Sam Shepard that we felt like it’d be perfect for our stage,” Wood said.
When casting the show, Wood wanted to find an actor who could bring a “loveable grit” to the role of Lee, something that would keep audiences interested in the character.
“Sometimes someone walks in, and you’re like ‘There he is,’ ” Wood said of St. Martin’s audition. “He was a no-brainer. He was really, really smart in his choices.”
“True West” marks St. Martin’s Lake City Playhouse debut.
For the role of Austin, Wood was looking for someone you could take home to your mother and called Ross a “very clean-cut, all-American boy.”
“(Austin’s) got something in him that makes him seem uber normal, almost too normal, like anytime someone’s that normal you know there’s something wrong with them,” Wood said. “Austin’s the one that really makes such a huge character shift.”
Depending on who you ask, “True West” is included in the “Family Trilogy,” a trio of plays by Shepard that also includes “Curse of the Starving Class” and “Buried Child,” or a quintet, which includes the aforementioned plays plus “Fool for Love” and “A Lie of the Mind.”
Wood believes these Shepard plays in particular resonate so strongly with audiences partly because of our current interest in dramedies and shows like “This Is Us.”
“People want to laugh, they want to cry, they want to see all the different levels of the human spirit,” she said. “Sam Shepard wins in that section. He knows how to make you laugh and then seven seconds later absolutely mortify you in the fact that things can happen to people, or sitting around a family dinner table, the things that are actually talked about and the variances.”
She also believes audiences are able to connect to the darker elements of the characters Shepard writes while also recognizing their positive traits.
“He writes darker characters, but we all realize that most of us have that in us,” she said. “He does a lovely job with making sure that even though there’s a darker character, you still like them. You still see some of their good stuff as well.”
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