July 16, 2009 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall.
The Williamstown Theatre Festival production of Sam Shepard’s True West rivals in brilliance and escalating violence the thunderstorm that delayed its tonight’s opening. Indeed, the building tensions of murderous rivalry and rage that swept across the stage through nine scenes exceeded the storm.
All the action occurs in Neil Patel’s scrupulously designed set (seen first as an exterior that suggests the ticky-tacky suburban sprawl forty miles from LA on the edge of the desert where coyote packs howl by night. As the play opens, uniformed stage-hands roll it and we see the meticulously staffed kitchen, replete with appliances down to the last pot holder.
It is evening, the ingenious lighting by Ben Stanton hangs blue over the set and spills in through the large window where scores of thriving plants temporarily defy the chrome kitchen appliances.
“Mom” (Debra Jo Rupp), who owns the house has gone off to Alaska and Austin (Nate Corddry), her younger son, college-educated and now a small-time writer who does at least sell scripts to a Hollywood producer, has come away from his city home (and wife and three kids) to write in peace and quiet and to water the plants.
But as the play begins, his brother Lee (Paul Sparks) a drifter, ten years older, uneducated and unsuccessful, not seen for five years, has appeared in the kitchen. And the sibling rivalry which has evidently always existed in this self-destructive family can again begin.
Lee decides to stay and at first Austin seems to try to make the best of his unwelcome presence, cajoled into lending him the car, in which Lee drives about at night stealing small appliances from the neighbors.
However, when Lee not only intrudes on Austin’s meeting with his movie contact Saul Kimmer (Stephen Kunken), a dapper, over-dressed LA type, but takes over, tensions and what plot there is in this rather plotless play, lash out and the very room in which the play takes place is demolished.
Near the play’s end “Mom,” who is a small, and somewhat out-of-it-all creature, returns unexpectedly from Alaska to total ruin, not only of the room and its contents, but, sadly for the plants that no one has found time to water. Hers has proved a dysfunctional family at best. Her husband has been lost for years out on the desert, where hilariously but ruefully we learn during the course of the play, he has even lost his dentures in a doggy bag at a fast food joint.
Shepard is hard to categorize. His writing is distinctively his own; menace looms and gradually grows as the packs of coyotes get larger and louder. His characters fight for space (in a crowded and empty world) as at times Pinter’s do, but he is not like Pinter.
His dialog is rapidly paced, full of laugh lines, though ones growing out of a situation of confrontation that is, itself, devastating.
The characters, flailing about in their empty and meaningless lives, are expertly acted,. Lee is full of snarl, jealousy, betrayal and menace. Austin is finally a drunken, goaded, creature, swirled into his brother’s toaster-stealing world and piling up toast until he is driven to attempted homicide. Kimmer is swarmy, flamboyant, fickle, given to poses and gestures, and Mom, all vague acceptance of her children’s destruction, ruing, really, only her lost plants (and a few pieces of antique china which Lee grabs to carry off to the desert, if he does indeed get back there.) is eager to depart early.
As for his title, True West is not the western Roy Rogers flick idea Lee tricks the agent into accepting, canceling out Austin’s very different and almost completed script, but True West is possibly the awful sprawl of Southern California and the root-less-ness and emptiness of its too many inhabitants in the current world.
Whatever, Shepard’s play catches and has caught the imagination of our times. Written in the 70’s, by the 80’s it had moved from off-Bway status to gleaning all the Oscar nominations on Broadway where it ran for more than 700 performances.
It may well prove to be Williamstown’s hit of the season. Besides it’s talented cast, the magnificent set, ingenious lighting (especially the lowering and raising blue moon spots or day-time blistering suns.), and great supporting sound (by Darren L. West) not only of coyotes and crickets but of music linking the scenes.
Director Daniel Goldstein can be proud of this production which seems to me, with limited Shepard experience, to have captured whatever it is that makes a Shepard play True Shepard, whatever that is!
- Williamstown Theatre Festival schedule 2009 season
- Williamstown Theatre Festival