Russ Hunt's Reviews

True West
by Sam Shepard

Theatre St. Thomas
August 2001

"THERE WILL BE NO INTERMISSION," the program for the Theatre St. Thomas production of Sam Shepard's True West said, and sure enough, there wasn't. No letup, either. This is a play which depends very centrally on a palpable tension between two characters, a tension which is there almost unbearably at the very beginning and, improbably, builds inexorably for the next hour and a half. Punctuated by moments of intense humour and flashes of violence, the tension is essentially the play's only structural principle.

What happens is, in one sense, pretty simple. Austin, a screenwriter, is working on "a project," which he's apparently on the verge of selling to a producer. He's working (and house-sitting) in his mother's house in Los Angeles when his estranged ne'er-do-well brother Lee arrives in from the desert. Lee is completely uncomprehending of what Austin thinks of as his career as a writer, and bulls his way into the relationship between Austin and his producer, convincing the producer that his own "true" Western story is far better than Austin's fey love story project. "Nobody is interested in love these days, Austin. Let's face it," announces the producer, Saul, as he tells Austin he's going to buy Lee's completely unwritten (and, as Shepard shows us, unwritably dumb) story and cancel the deal on Austin's.

As director Ilkay Silk notes in the program, the two central roles in the play have become, in the two decades since it was first produced, classic challenges for actors. One is that of Austin, the college-educated, conventionally middle-class screenwriter who has to find a way to cope with the sudden eruption of his brother into his last-ditch attempt to forge a deal with Saul. He seems an innocent and frustrated highbrow wimp, in comparison, at least, with Lee, a dark, threatening, electrically-charged and repressed nightmare of the frontiersman as anarchy personified, who has been living in the Mojave Desert and who seems to survive by stealing people's televisions and various other mysterious illicit activities.

Both characters, in outline, sound pretty much like clichés, and so do the play's themes. In theory, anyway, the play is "about" the death of the frontier and the "true west" -- after all, that's what Shepard's title invites us to look for. And actually Lee's macho independence and contempt for "law and order" can be seen to represent the frontier ethos gone to seed: the Wild West hits its limit in the suburbs of Los Angeles. The lame and clichéd "true Western" story he has to sell is all that's left.

Similarly, Austin's education has brought him to the point where he's able only to sneer (with justice, but still) at the trivial stupidity of Lee's story -- "There's no such thing as the West any more!" -- while, the script suggests, his own work is less than brilliant. And yet when it comes to the crunch he's still ready to give up everything, including his "artistic integrity," to go off and live in the desert with Lee in a futile attempt to recapture that lost frontier, of stalwart men surviving against all odds. (It's clearly not coincidental that Austin tells Lee that the producer "thinks we're the same person," and later says that "we all all sound alike when we're sloshed. We just sorta echo each other.")

Except for the snap of the dialogue and Shepard's uncanny -- one might say Pinteresque -- ear for unvoiced threat, this would all seem pretty trivial stuff. The challenge for the actors, thus, isn't so much in characterization (at one point Austin tells Lee about his unwritable story, "those aren't characters, they're illusions of characters"), but in tension maintenance, in keeping the relationship between the two at the very edge. Actually the production is just the kind of ensemble performance that Ilkay Silk has specialized in: what counts here isn't the individual but the interplay, not the bravura acting but the orchestration of the whole.

Still, the two main actors give a couple of the strongest performances I've seen in the Box. Christian Robichaud, as Austin, is (or, at least, begins as) a large, awkward, ineffectual victim, trying to respond to his brother's rude jibes and insensitive, aggressive questions but not able to find the words, his shoulders slumped over the typewriter in defeat. Ben Kean's Lee broadcasts an electric, almost Brando-esque intensity, his unblinking, fierce glare holding his brother's eyes just longer than is comfortable, playing with protracted silences (there's Pinter again) and a voice so lowered with tension you can barely hear him, his gestures tight and consciously restrained, his wick burning next to the explosives all the time. The arc of the relation between the two is complex and ironic: after Lee has taken over the dominant position with Saul, Austin takes over the role of aggressor, interrupting Lee's attempts to write just as Lee had begun by interrupting him, taunting him with his inability to type or spell.

One of the strongest elements of this production is the use of physical space. Lee and Austin face each other in a tiny but thoroughly detailed kitchen, surrounded on three sides by the audience, pulled in from the walls of the Box so that the space is intimate and confining (and so that the audience, to get to their seats inside the space, has actually to walk round next to the performance area). This puts the two actors in intimate contact with each other -- and with us -- from the beginning, and gives them lots of useful stage business with which to telegraph the tension between them. In this naturalistic space, Silk's subtle blocking tells us effectively about their relationship without seeming artificial.

Robbie O'Neil plays Saul Kimmer, the producer, as more a victim of Lee than the kind of predatory, shallow Hollywood type I think Shepard probably intended. This has the effect of making Lee seem even more powerful and charismatic: it's not just that Kimmer is cynically interested in playing to the lowest common denominator, it's that Lee has dominated him.

Terry McKinnon is a solid "mom," though it seemed to me that somehow the last scene, when she unexpectedly arrives back from Alaska and reduces the two to squabbling, messy, irresponsible children ("You'll have to stop fighting in the house. There's plenty of room to fight outside"), might have been more absurd or bizarre if she had been a more dominant figure.

Finally, though, what matters here is the coherence of the production. Everything fit: the use of the space, the lighting design (usually I don't much like blackouts, but these were elegant and filled with appropriate sound -- from the cheesy western music to the coyotes and the deafening crickets which seem to inhabit this almost-absurd suburb of Los Angeles), the touch of theatre of the absurd in the littering of the stage with toasters, stolen by Austin to prove . . . well, perhaps his manhood. I liked even the nice lighting reversal, freeze-framing Austin and Lee in their permanent relationship at the end.

I hope Theatre St. Thomas finds a way to revive this production during the academic year, and I hope Ilkay Silk finds some more Shepard to bring to us.

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