True West, first performed in 1980, was a finalist for the PulitzerPrize for Drama in 1983, although it’s author, Sam Shepard, once said “I’m notproud of any of my plays but the one I’m least embarrassed by is True West”.
Aristotle’s Poetics,the most widely recommended text on how to write fiction is still, to this day,recommended reading for screenwriters. One of the most frequently quoted linesfrom Poetics is “art imitateslife”. However, in 2019, it is temptingto say that “life imitates art”. Intoday’s world of heightened partisanship where civility and reconciliation seemfurther apart than ever, True Westmay have never seemed more prescient.
True West is aCain and Abel story of two brothers, Austin and Lee, who come together byaccident, after several years of separation. Austin, the younger, successfulbrother, is a screenwriter. Lee, homeless, permanently disheveled and always on the lookout for hisnext mark, drops by their mother’s home, where Austin is house-sitting.
Anyone who has a brother or sister will instantly relate tothe age-old dynamic of sibling rivalry, on full display between Austin and Lee.
Anthony Goes gives a superlative performance as Lee, who isall bravado, at once challenging and unpredictable. Having just stumbled backinto civilization after living several months in the desert, he is uncivilizedand uncivil. Taking offense at his brothers’ success, he is both disdainful andjealous, swinging manically back and forth between two extremes.
Lee’s character is by far the most engaging to watch, andGoes gives the character full throttle. The dynamic between bullying bigbrother and the timid Austin is something anyone who has been to a familyreunion or holiday gathering can relate to.
Austin, played by Steve Kidd, gives a superb performance asthe long-suffering and tolerant younger brother. In the role of Austin, Kidddoesn’t have the freedom to dominate the stage like Goes, but instead, mustslowly reveal his character’s strengths and inner demons as the playprogresses.
The arrival of Saul Kimmer, Austin’s agent (played byRichard Donelly), is the catalyst that, when tossed into the already simmeringpot of sibling history, results in a long-overdue reckoning between Lee andAustin.
The previously arranged meeting between Austin and Saul ishijacked by Lee, who subsequently convinces Saul to abandon the project he hadtentatively agreed to with Austin, and instead, undertake Lee’s story for hisnext movie. Austin is at once horrified, disbelieving, and crushed, as he seeshis opportunity at success snatched away by his uneducated, no-talent olderbrother. The situation quickly escalates between the brothers, involvingtypewriter bashing, small appliance theft and lots of toast.
The setting for the entire play is the living room andkitchen of their mother’s house, with a beautifully recreated 1980’s southwesternsuburban vibe. Interestingly, it is not the house the brothers grew up in,which only adds to the disconnected, transitory feelings displayed by Lee andAustin.
True West is an astonishingly true to life story, written by a screenwriter widely regarded as one of America’s finest. I recommend it highly.
True Westby Sam Shepard runs through May 5 at The Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick, RI. Tickets are $44, $52 and $60. Call 401-723-4266 or order atgammtheatre.org. Discounts for seniors, students and groups.