TRUE WEST (Theatre Exile): a rare, in-your-face take on a modern classic

Photo by Paola Nogueras.
Photo by Paola Nogueras.

Theatre Exile mounts new, dicey plays and modern classics—badass classics, that is, from outstanding contemporary playwrights like Tracy Letts, Martin McDonough, and in this case, Sam Shepard. For anyone out there who likes Sam Shepard’s writing and movie acting, but hasn’t seen his splendid TRUE WEST, this would be a good opportunity to go ahead and see it at Plays & Players‘ vintage theater.

Over the years, the productions I’ve seen of the 34-year old TRUE WEST have been done by very small theatre companies with bare-bones sets. This rare fully staged production boasts a mom’s kitchen set that a person could probably live in.

Two sons of a drunk, absent father and ditsy mother come across like a two-sided mask. Ostensibly, one son has done everything right, and the other has done everything wrong. But in the course of the story each thinks he sees his unmet dreams in the life of other: Lee, a petty thief who has been living in the Mojave desert, poaches on Austin’s writing territory, while Austin longs to make a fresh start in the desert.

Photo by Paola Nogueras.
Photo by Paola Nogueras.

The cast of four is solid and well-chosen for their roles. Under the direction of associate artistic director Matt Pfeiffer, the play moves along with uncharacteristic speed, and the rangy and mercurial Lee is something of an oddity. The Lee often encountered in productions will act more laid back than he actually is—in between escalating blow-ups—slowly setting everything on edge. The behavior of Brian Osborne’s Lee, more loud feistiness than veiled intimidation, affects the dynamic between the brothers.

Jeb Kreager’s Austin is suitably uptight as an insecure, ivy league-educated screenwriter. His descent from nerd into aggressor resembles something that would happen in LORD OF THE FLIES. Joe Canuso is calm and slick as Hollywood insider Saul. (It’s rare to see Joe decked out in threads like these.) Saul quickly sees—with motivation from Lee—that while Austin has the discipline, he lacks Lee’s flashes of ideas. Eventually Austin lashes out on Saul: “There’s no such thing as the West anymore! It’s a dead issue! It’s dried up, Saul, and so are you.” Finally, E. Ashley Izard completes the cast as the comically clueless and ineffectual mom.

Christopher Colucci’s sound design goes well beyond the usual incidental chirping cricket effects and occasional howling coyotes. Music and noise in a strategically increasing buzz support the emotional climate like an aural net, providing an ominous and cacophonous atmosphere within which tension can build. In fact, the gradual menace factor insinuates itself more into the sound than it actually does onstage.

Theatre Exile’s production, more in-your-face than generally encountered, still hews close to Shepard’s directions in a valid interpretation that should be seen. Shepard is endlessly interesting. In TRUE WEST he addresses the atavistic idea of the West, and seems to caution that you can’t just be whoever you want to be. You’re multi-faceted, and anyway you’re already cooked. You probably don’t even know which you is authentic.

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