Sheppard’s ‘True West’ shows clear direction in Downstage performance

“True West” takes place over the course of several days in a small, aseptic kitchen in suburban Los Angeles. The two brothers are housesitting for their mother, away on vacation in Alaska. Austin (Andrew Giarolo ’04) is an Ivy League graduate who has married and settled down as a screenwriter. He walks around the house carefully with meticulously combed hair, thick glasses, a shirt tucked into his khakis and a cigarette perpetually dangling from his lips. Lee (Peter Van Steemburg ’03) is an unkempt bum who has just come from living for several months in the desert and makes a living by stealing electronic appliances from other peoples’ homes. His clothes are matted and dirty and he habitually takes large swigs from a can of beer. In most ways he is the opposite of Austin in demeanor and status. Lee is all swagger, with angry eyes and edgy body language. He skulks around the house oblivious to the mess he is making. Austin is stilted and contained, every motion and step carefully taken to minimize his presence in the kitchen.

The narrative concerns the rivalry and disputes between the brothers. Austin objects to Lee’s lifestyle and larcenous ways. Lee is jealous of Austin’s status and angry over what he perceives as Austin’s sense of intellectual and social superiority. They endlessly battle over trivial matters like making breakfast and more serious topics such as their alcoholic and destitute father. The guarded civility between them disguises a persistent tension in the most mundane of exchanges. As the play progresses, they struggle with genuine brotherly affection, efforts to contain their growing antipathy and outright hostility.

Their rivalry is galvanized by negotiations between Austin and Saul Kimmer (Israel Mirsky ’03), a sleazy Hollywood producer, over the purchase of a screenplay. Lee finagles Kimmer into agreeing to a game of golf. In the course of the game, he presents a screenplay of his own that the producer agrees to buy instead of Austin’s, after losing a bet. This development sparks a role reversal in character; Austin devolves into a drunken, thieving bum while Lee struggles to go straight and write a screenplay by himself. The result is a gradual fall into chaos and violence.

The intense antagonism between the two brothers gives rise to an explosion of entropy in the second half of the play, as well as delicious moments of black comedy. In one situation, Austin drunkenly says he will try his hand at his brother’s thieving ways; Lee responds by claiming Austin would be unable to steal a toaster. In the next scene, Austin enters carrying a dozen toasters while Lee is busy destroying the typewriter with a golf club. Austin tries to soothe Lee’s ire by making him as much toast as possible. Such scenes are interspersed with moments of drama and absurdity as the duo’s simmering anger frequently explodes and eventually turns the peaceful kitchen into picture of complete domestic mayhem. In another example, Austin almost strangles his brother to death with a phone cord while their mother (Becca Krass ’03) calmly tells them to fight outside.

While the play presents scenes that are both funny and tragic, it continually plays upon the theme of what is genuine in this world, seeking the existence of “True West.” Lee frequently bemoans the tidy orderliness of the suburban world and expresses longing for the wildness of the desert, which he feels is more real. Kimmer chooses Lee’s screenplay, which is described as a “contemporary Western,” because he says it has a feeling of truth to it. The brothers frequently debate what is a true story by referring to various anecdotes that they believe are Western. It was often difficult to synthesize all these references to genuineness and the West into a coherent meaning. However, if the entire play is seen as a representation of the “True West,” then the devolution of a peaceful suburban scene into one of barbarous chaos is emblematic of the truly western. The west, Shepard shows, is the anarchy that lies beneath the constructed relationships and domesticity that we see at the beginning of the play.

Because “True West” is a character-driven play, its success was based on Giarolo and Van Steemburg. Their performances were beautifully understated during the first act, their interaction as stilted as their relationship. Unfortunately, the first half tended to drag as the tension between the two brothers sometimes failed to materialize. At other times, the subtexts of their conversations were fully evoked into smoldering animosity. Giarolo’s depiction of an unhinged Austin in the second act was beautifully crafted; he portrays a man who no longer cares about his career, his family and all the things that were once valuable. Van Steemburg also deserves credit for fully illuminating the nuances of Lee’s character and showing the complexity underneath the crude surface.

The direction kept the play going when it might have grown static by subtly altering levels of tension. At times, the play focused too much on the comedy and absurdity of the narrative. As a result, the dramatic climax of performance was restrained, without a real sense of explosiveness during the face-off between Austin and Lee. Besides these few faults, “True West” was beautifully acted and produced, skillfully evoking Sheppard’s themes.

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