TRUE WEST (Theatre Exile): Sibling rivalry and the American dream

Photo by Paola Nogueras.

Photo by Paola Nogueras.

Sibling rivalry, conflicting personalities, and antithetical lifestyles regress to anti-social antics, primal rage, and role reversal in TRUE WEST, Sam Shepard’s dark comedy about two adult brothers, estranged for five years, who resume their dysfunctional relationship while house-sitting in Southern California for their vacationing mother. Theatre Exile exposes the competition, jealousy, lunacy, and savagery of family politics with a cast, direction, and design that alternately amuse and horrify.

Brian Osborne as Lee, an unkempt, liquor-guzzling burglar, delivers the sarcasm, aggression, and anger of the dissolute brother who rejects a respectable suburban existence for the wilderness of the western desert and a lone life of petty crime. Jeb Kreager embodies the polar opposite as Austin, an accomplished Hollywood screenwriter and family man, who is controlled, industrious, and conciliatory as he pursues his American dream. Together they personify the dual natures of both the “true west” and the artistic temperament (in aptly contrasting costumes by Alison Roberts), as they undergo a reversal of fortune at the hands of the slick and capricious producer Saul Kimmer (well played by Joe Canuso, in a comically understated characterization) and begin to manifest each other’s habits and identities.

Under Matt Pfeiffer’s ever-masterful direction, we witness the brothers’ growing uncertainties and personal frustrations, and the inescapable impact of their unseen alcoholic father, a man of “a different ilk” who earlier abandoned his family for the Mojave Desert. The tension is electric, as Osborne and Kreager face off, outwardly challenging yet secretly admiring the choices the other has made. Osborne fearlessly captures Lee’s constant outbursts and unbridled fury, and Kreager subtly conveys Austin’s sadness and burn-out, as he, too, begins to self-medicate with whisky, and the siblings destroy the sunny mood, orderliness, and essence of their mother’s spotless yellow kitchen and beloved houseplants (scenic design by Matt Saunders, cabinetry by woodwork artist Janice C. Smith, and props by Alice Yorke).

Exile’s one-act production is disturbing, funny, and moving, as it distills all of Shepard’s emotion, sardonic wit, and symbolism into a relentless and powerful 95-minutes of filial and internal conflict, existentialist angst, and regional identity. January 30-February 23, 2014, www.theatreexile.org.

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About the author

Debra Miller

Debra holds a PhD in Art History from the University of Delaware and teaches at Rowan University, Glassboro, NJ. She is a judge for the Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, Philadelphia Arts and Culture Correspondent for Central Voice, and has served as a Commonwealth Speaker for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council and President of the Board of Directors of Da Vinci Art Alliance. Her publications include articles, books, and catalogues on Renaissance, Baroque, American, Pre-Columbian, and Contemporary Art, and feature articles on the Philadelphia theater scene.