Fun House Theatre and Film
Director – Jeff Swearingen
Set Design – Clare Floyd DeVries
Lighting Designer – Brandon Cunningham
Costume Design – Bren Rapp
Jeremy LeBlanc – Austin
Josh LeBlanc – Lee
Jaxon Beeson – Saul Kimmer
Taylor Donnelson – Mom
Reviewed Performance 5/30/2015
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Sam Shepherd writes gritty plays. They explore the guts of living and expose the lies and myths people create to survive. True West is like that. Two brothers, Austin and Lee, live on opposite sides of the American Dream, both privately coveting what the other has. When they get it, they discover it’s not worth the trouble. They are also sons of a father who never appears, but he is important in the brother’s lives, as both desperately want to escape his story.
Fun House Theatre and Film is a theater training program for youth. Taught and directed by Jeff Swearingen, the young actors get advanced training and they apply their training to meaty, adult plays like True West (and David Mamet’s speed-the-plow, now playing in repertory with True West).
The small black box at Plano Children’s Theater held a simple combined kitchen and living room set, looking a lot like an apartment I had in the mid-70’s. Clare Floyd DeVries put a couch and chair in front of a small kitchenette and dining room table where writing replaced meals. Everything looked pretty vintage for a small LA home, save for the laptop on the table. Brandon Cunningham washed the stage brightly and created blackouts for scene changes. Bren Rapp costumed the four actors to their personalities, a bit preppy for Austin, a western desert slouch for Lee. Saul, the Hollywood producer, wore a white lounge suit and Mom wore the basic plain drab dress of a middle-age woman in the 70’s.
Austin is a screenwriter working on a movie project and minding his mother’s house. Jeremy LeBlanc played Austin. Though just 15, his costume and behavior belied his age to look older and, more importantly, as Austin fights his brother through most of the show, Jeremy was able to fight “older” than his age would suggest. Austin’s demeanor in the beginning is low-key and even-keeled. Jeremy gave Austin a professional air, confidant in his talent, and only reacted with mild irritation at the presence of his unwanted brother. However Austin is the butt of his brother’s ridicule and it wears on him. Jeremy took this turn from giving in at first to gradually acting more frustrated until he finally became violent and wild, showing Austin’s descent into Lee’s criminal world. The play is filled with conflict and Jeremy handled these constant arguments and physical fights with ease, but he also showed Austin’s self-doubt through thoughtful pauses and tentative vocal levels in his responses.
Where Jeremy did show his youth was in the drunk scenes. In Shepherd’s plays, drunkenness is messy, dirty, often gut-wrenching and hard to watch. Even when done for comedy, it needs to look realistic. Many adult actors are challenged by this as well. Jeremy made it a bit of a caricature of being drunk. Whether it was slurred speech or falling and stumbling, it came across as acting drunk rather than being drunk and took away some realism from the dysfunction. It wasn’t childish; it just wasn’t realistic.
Lee is Austin’s brother and a very different character. Wild, uncontrolled, living on the ragged edge, illegal, irreverent, Lee is dangerous. He was played here by Josh LeBlanc, Jeremy’s real older brother. Josh looked and acted the older part. Lee also drinks, but it’s a cleaner kind of drunk, beer rather than bourbon, and a history of that. Josh didn’t have to fall and stumble. His speech was more normal, as if Lee had years to cope with the buzz. Josh gave Lee an anti-society worldview. He looked and sounded intimidating and menacing. Lee also goes through a transition to try to become more normal, replacing Austin’s drive for responsibility. Josh changed his speech and body posture and dressed a bit more neatly for these scenes. But it belies frustration Lee is feeling with these new responsibilities and Josh showed this growing agitation through a quiet, seething vocal response to a now-crazy Austin. In time, Lee has to deal with a brother who might kill him and Josh and Jeremy did not hold back as an attack unfolded behind the couch. It looked realistic and Josh made his possible death very believable.
Saul Kimmer is the trigger that causes both brothers to transform through his sudden acceptance of Lee’s story and rejection of Austin’s project. Played by Jaxon Beeson, Saul is the savvy, jaded, Hollywood producer who is working with Austin when he gets sucked into Lee’s strange world. I kept thinking Beeson just looked too innocent and youthful to play this jaded character, but he handled the conflict and Saul’s subtext comfortably. Saul walks a tight line between the brothers and his studios, wanting to stay true to his own art. Beeson kept Saul professional and separate from the brothers’ fights, listening to their bickering attacks on each other in an almost counselor-like way. It’s probably unrealistic for a real movie producer in the 70’s, but it worked here. With a strong voice and calm presence, Beeson provided a calming influence on the show without distracting from the violence.
Mom (Austin’s and Lee’s mom) was played by Taylor Donnelson, apparent elder of this cast at 17. As Mom comes home from Alaska, she finds her house and family in violent turmoil. Donnelson gave Mom a nice response to this chaos, an unbelieving incredulity. When Mom sees her house wrecked and her prized plants dead, Donnlson’s face looked like people viewing their home after a damaging storm. In time, though, Mom shifts and we see something suggesting a chaotic life for her too. Donnelson shifted to an exuberance in her text, an excited posture and vocal energy as she animated Mom’s request to the boys to join her, but then quickly faded back to depression as Mom is rejected by her sons. We knew she had a deeper problem.
True West is an exploration on life and family. Life is complicated and people get caught up in the chaos and resort to survival techniques that often include lies. When they believe the lies it leads to dysfunction and consequences for everyone. There’s much more to True West than the surface story, so most viewers may find other themes here, but this family dynamics theme comes out fully in this presentation.
Regardless of what Shepherd actually intended or themes Jeff Swearingen had for this production, Fun House Theatre and Film has created a legitimate telling of this story and, though the actors are young, you will see a story unfold largely as Shepherd wrote it. It only plays one more weekend, but I recommend True West for lovers of Sam Shepherd and meaty dramatic theater.
Fun House Theatre and Film
Plano Children’s Theatre
1301 Custer Road
Plano, Texas 75075
Plays through June 6th (in rep with speed-the-plow)
True West: Friday June 5 at 7:30 pm; Saturday June 6 at 7:30 pm.
Speed-the-plow: Thursday June 4 at 7:30 pm; Saturday June 6 at 2:30 pm.
Tickets are $8.00; $10.00 for both shows purchased together.
For information and tickets, visit http://www.funhousetheatreandfilm.com.