It’s hard to imagine a better setting for Sam Shepard’s story of two brothers than the intimate space of the Lake City Playhouse in Coeur d’Alene. The audience sits tucked close to the warm hues of a ’70s-era living room set.
But in this story intimate doesn’t mean a cozy and nostalgic childhood home. Intimate means intrusive, alcohol-drenched questions that only family gets the pass on asking.
Directed by Brooke Wood, “True West” embarks as a modest character study but ends as a jarring exploration of a dark and uniquely American comedy.
From when the lights first come up, the performers imbue an air of toxicity. Austin (Kyle Ross) sits stiff at a metal table pounding out something profound on his typewriter. His brother Lee (Ricky St. Martin) emerges from the entryway behind, case of Coors in hand. Lee wastes no time in probing his brother about house sitting their mother’s place and whatever it is he’s trying to concentrate on at that typewriter. Austin rebuts, flippant and defensive, asking Lee where he’s been and how long he plans to stay.
These characters are common to Shepard’s work. Average Americans with an obligatory bond toward one another but at odds every step of the way – “real true to life” as Lee’s character repeatedly states.
St. Martin dominates the stage with bumbling and hefty movements, always pointing a scrutinizing finger to punctuate his nonsensical statements. Lee knows little more than the desert landscape and a life of crime but St. Martin quickly demonstrates that Lee is the master manipulator – not of a cunning nature but of a pushy and charismatic one.
It’s hard to picture anyone but St. Martin in this role. He is hilariously naturalistic. Lee is inherently written with more humor, but it’s St. Martin that fleshes him out with a local flair, giving the southwest setting a surprisingly familiar flavor. If you have lived in North Idaho or Eastern Washington long enough, you just know this guy. St. Martin has honed his mannerisms to bring a lovable humor to what is otherwise written as a grungy and threatening character.
In the first act, Ross is tasked to play the more restrained role of a closed-off Hollywood writer. He brings an uppity SoCal flamboyance to a character that is often read as a more insipid and serious writer-type, but it is this choice that sells the larger-than-life, surrealistic twists of act two.
St. Martin stomps around the stage routinely slapping Ross upside the head but Ross maintains a dignified posture and responds with an averted gaze. Ross demonstrates this is a learned behavior for Lee, tactfully hinting at a childhood backstory that explains Lee’s need to repeatedly assert that he is in fact not afraid of his brother.
Ross and St. Martin play in the ebb and flow of vicious head butting that diffuses into moments of a relaxed nostalgia. It serves to remind us of the unforgiving familial bond between the two opposing characters, but also creates a cyclical and tedious rise in tension. The stakes are raised once Austin brings business into the mix.
A visit from Austin’s producer, Saul (David Sharon) inadvertently leads Lee to pitch a flashy, half-baked Western story idea. Austin is suckered into writing the outline.
Austin is shattered to learn that the outline lands Lee an offer from Saul. And he is destroyed to learn that if he doesn’t write the script, Saul will toss his current project. He refuses in stubborn indignation, in which the pretentiousness that Ross established begins to rear its ugly head.
Sharon plays a quieter and more awkward producer than typically expected but it sells Saul as a slinking, self-interested businessman.
Kay Poland plays the mother, who is bound return eventually, and delivers an aloof and confused performance that serves as a perfect reflection of the unsuspecting audience.
With his life crumbling in on itself Austin turns to booze and shouts resentful mockery at Lee as he attempts to put words to paper in desperation to deliver. Whereas St. Martin dominated the first act, Ross takes stride in the second.
The psychology is unwinding and their mother’s plants are dying of neglect. The audience is now trapped, left to watch the characters destroy the set and themselves in the hysterical chaos of an otherwise typical American tale.
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