TRUE WESTby Sam Shepard
Totally Wow Productions
Directed by Bill Rhoten
Set and Prop Design by Kelly Kovar, Dirk Kovar and Mike Johnson
Lighting and Sound Design by Bill Rhoten, Mike Self
Austin --- Larry LeMaster
Lee --- Eric Hanson
Saul --- Olon McClendon
Mom --- Lisa Rosewell
Photos by Nick Todaro, Ennis Daily News.
Reviewed Performance: 10/31/2013
Reviewed by Chris Jackson, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Sometime in 1982 my wife and I saw True West at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York starring then-unknown actors Gary Sinise (who also directed) and John Malkovich. I remember being overwhelmed by the acting and the script and indeed, by the whole production. Never had I seen such repressed danger as Malkovich projected. Nothing overt, I still can’t figure out how he did it, but it was there and it was terrifying. The production was very real, unreal, symbolic, hysterically funny, dreadfully sad and never less than gripping. Was it two sides of one person, a blistering indictment of Hollywood, a family drama, an allegory of American Western myth, all or none of those things? Maybe that’s why the play has remained so popular since its premier in 1980 at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco where Sam Shepard was playwright in residence.
In 1982, Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago revived the play that later transferred to the Cherry Lane. March, 2000, a Broadway revival opened at the Circle on the Square Theatre with Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly alternating the roles of the two brothers. Locally, Contemporary Theater of Dallas presented the play in 2011 and Kitchen Dog Theater in 1997.
The play is categorized as a comedy and there is certainly a lot of funny stuff to be found. Maybe more so than in some of Shepard’s other works. (Curse of the Starving Class and Buried Child, which came before, and A Lie of the Mind that came after.) Jimmy Fowler, in his review of 1997”s Kitchen Dog production described the play as “…a sonogram of Shepard’s artistic schizophrenia. … his body of work contains … a glimpse of the epic bravery inside the disadvantaged, the wounded, and wounding.” Critic Richard Gilman described Sam Shepard as the “Jackson Pollock of the American theater.” Form and idea hidden in the strange swirling splatters and drips of words and events.
True West appears at first glance, to be a little more linear and straightforward than some of Shepard’s other work. As the play progresses, however, roles become less clear and nonsequitors and “out of left field” statements become more apparent along with the nagging suspicion that this is a play about two halves of the same person. The character of Austin, the screenwriter, says, “He thinks we’re the same person.” Later he also says, “There’s nothing for me here. Not even myself.”
In speaking of this play, Shepard says, “I wanted to write a play about double nature, one that wouldn’t be symbolic or metaphorical or any of that stuff. I just wanted to give a taste of what it feels like to be two0sided. It’s a real thing, double nature. I think we’re split in a much more devastating way than psychology can ever reveal. It’s not so cute. Not some little thing we can get over. It’s something we’ve got to live with.” His play Buried Child won the Pulitzer in 1979 and A Lie of the Mind the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1986. True West was a finalist for the 1983 Pulitzer Prize in Drama.
On the Samuel French play publishing website, the play is summarized something like this: “Sons of a desert dwelling alcoholic and a suburban wandering mother, clash over a film script. Austin, the achiever, is house sitting for his mother who is in Alaska and working on a script he has sold to producer Saul Kimmer when his brother, Lee, a demented petty thief whom he hasn’t seen in years, drops in. Lee pitches his own idea for a movie to Kimmer, who then wants Austin to junk his bleak, modern love story and write Lee’s trashy Western tale.” Of course, there’s much more to this play than a simple plot synopsis can imply.
Halloween night, in the Black Box Theater at KD Studios, Totally Wow Productions opened their version of this American standard to a small but very appreciative audience. In a simple, but effective set credited to Kelly and Dirk Kovar and Mike Johnson, the comic drama unfolded in an earnest and heart-felt production. Directed by Bill Rhoten, the play seemed at times a little unsure in its tone or approach, but everyone involved obviously was dedicated to making it work. Lights and sound by Mr. Rhoten and Mike Self worked well, especially the ever-present crickets. As Lee says, “Those are the most monotonous f***in’ crickets I ever heard in my life.”!
Eric Hanson as Lee, the wanderer, had the showiest role, and he made the most of it. He showed more of Lee’s vulnerability than might have been expected from this character and that was an interesting approach. What didn’t work so well was the absence of any real threat or roiling suppressed anger and danger in his performance that are a vital underpinning of the script. When Lee tells Austin, “You’re afraid of me,” there was no fear and nothing to be afraid of. There also was a lack of seductive persuasion on Hanson’s part in his scene with Saul Kimmer, the Producer, which would have helped to explain the physical closeness and comradeship of Lee and Saul in the second act. Even with that said, Mr. Hanson is a skilled and proficient actor and his Lee was always a pleasure to watch.
Austin was played by Larry LeMaster and he certainly looked the part of the well-adjusted, typical, stable screenwriter and family man. He seemed sure of himself on stage and experienced in performing, even if a lot of the aimless movement that he eventually engaged in seemed unmotivated at times. Whether this was his choice or that of his director, I’m not certain. Little seemed to truly “land” on his character, and none of the action had much effect on his characterization, resulting in a rather one-note performance. The act of violence Austin performs at the end came out of nowhere and seemed totally out of character from the persona he had built for us. He has good stage presence, and in another role, could probably be quite effective.
An unfortunate choice was made to costume and play Saul Kimmer as both a clown and caricature complete with black fright wig, like a brunette Ronald McDonald, and a lime green and then pink suit accessorized with heavy gold chains, rings and bracelets. (No costumer is credited.) With the character presented as a joke, it threw the show way off balance. It didn’t help that Olon Mcclendon was slow on his cue pickups and seemed at times unsure of his next line. His resume in the program appeared to show a much more proficient actor.
Lisa Rosewell, an accomplished actress, made a strong entrance and impact as Mom in a role difficult for any actress to grasp. The sudden Picasso mention, when it comes, is totally random, the exit arbitrary, and both have to be justified somehow. Ms. Rosewell did a competent and commanding job with a strange and unwieldy role.
In all, the young Totally Wow Productions company is to be commended for tackling this American theater classic. It isn’t an easy show to do and although there were problems in characterization and motivation, the effort was never less than genuine and determined and there were several outstanding moments, especially Austin and Lee, drunk, sitting in the double sink, side by side. The rest of the announced season is just as ambitious and it is always a good thing for the local theater scene to have dedicated and hard-working professionals producing challenging work.
Totally Wow Productions
KD Studios Black Box Theater
2600 North Stemmons Freeway # 180
Dallas, TX 75209
Runs through November 17
Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00pm and Sunday at 2:00pm
Sunday matinees at 2:00
Tickets are $20.00, students $15.00, seniors $17.00
Purchase tickets online at http://truewestdallas.brownpapertickets.com
or call them at 214-843-2327