True West: Sam Shepard's Modern American Western on Stage in Red Bank
Austin is an Ivy League graduate and struggling young writer. He has a wife and two children back East, and is residing in his mother's little suburban home in a parched valley east of Los Angeles. Mom is on vacation in Alaska, and Austin is there to complete a screenplay which is set to go into production. Unexpectedly, his rough hewn, menacing brother Lee arrives at the house. The crafty Lee had left home before completing school and has since bummed around the Mojave Desert, subsisting on the fruits of petty theft. Austin makes his disrespect for Lee clear, not trusting Lee with the loan of his car, and trying to get rid of him with a cash handout.
By the second act, Lee has co-opted Austin's producer Saul Kimmer. Kimmer abandons production plans for Austin's screenplay with the intention of producing Lee's reputedly more commercial story idea for a western. Austin is coerced into writing the screenplay (for this story idea that he hates) in order to keep hopes alive for his own story and screenplay. Lee is now in the driver's seat, riding herd on Austin.
There is a reversal of roles here. However, Shepard has much more on his mind in his modern American western. These include the destructiveness of dysfunctional families (Austin and Lee's unseen wastrel father is a major player here); the power over our psyches of the legends of those who maintained their individuality while participating in the expansion of the American West (although I wonder if it applies to younger folk today); the taming and corseting effect of a suburban upbringing (with the suppression of individuality which accompanies it); and the compromise and loss of freedom which are necessary to attain success in our closely monitored society. Shepard rails at Hollywood and its commercially oriented, insincere and fickle power brokers.
Shepard raises the issue of psychological pre-determination. Does either the rebel-outlaw or the conforming striver really have any choice as to the path which he will take? And consider this. Are not Austin and Lee actually two warring sides of the same individual? As warring tendencies come to resolution, Shepard makes us aware of the terrible price that may have to be paid for that which is lost.
When True West opened at the Public Theatre in New York in 1980 with Peter Boyle (Lee) and Tommy Lee Jones (Austin), it ran just 24 performances, and the production was most notable for the feud that it set off between Joseph Papp and the dissatisfied Sam Shepard. Only when the 1982 Steppenwolf (Chicago) production with John Malkovich (Lee) and Randy Quaid (Austin) was produced Off-Broadway for a 762 performance run was its reputation secured. In a 2000 Broadway revival, John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman alternated in the roles. It was then noted in the press that the exchange of roles resulted in two very distinct interpretations of their relationship.
Director Robert M. Rechnitz and his actors sharply delineate the blistering hate and envy which Austin and Lee each feel for the other, and the physical violence which accompanies it, as well as the dark, menacing humor of the script. Rob Sedgwick has the showier role of outlaw brother Lee, and he plays it to the hilt. Sedgwick deftly displays a touch of sly humor when he chillingly and dementedly boasts of his ability to prosper ("there's big money in dog fighting"). Although his Lee is one seriously scary dude, Sedgwick is also poignant when he tells Austin, "I'm living out there because I can't live here."
Wayne Maugans' interpretation of Austin is cut from a different cloth. Austin is the brother to whom most audiences will relate. After all, Austin is bright, hard working and conforming (and a writer to boot). Although he has chosen the conforming path, it is made clear in Maugans' performance that he does not have the strength to resist Lee. The fate which awaits Austin/Lee after the final curtain seems certain. Given the events of the second act, this interpretation of Austin is perfectly valid. However, the uneven playing field produces less electricity than would equal combat. Still, there is a beautifully staged moment during which Maugans and Sedgwick, with the aid of their Fight Choreographer J. Allen Suddeth, convince us that he might have won out after all.
David Colacci is straightforwardly glib as the lightweight producer Kimmer. Home from Alaska and deaf to the torment of her sons, Sonja Lanzener projects a flat vacuity as their mother.
Parenthetically, I could not help but observe that it seemed odd that Austin, indefinitely apart from his wife and children, never calls them or speaks about them. This struck me as another indication of the loneliness and alienation which seem to so often mar people's lives.
The wide, flattish open set design for the house and its blanched outdoor background (with a patio, small homes and buttes suggesting Monumental Valley) is largely in shades of brown, and nicely suggests the play's themes.
Now, just how would True West play with Wayne Maugans as Lee and Rob Sedgwick as Austin?
True West continues performances through March 25 (Eves: Wed.-Sat. 8 p.m. (excluding. 3/21)/ Mats.: Wed. 1 p.m./ Sat.-Sun. 3 p.m.) at the Two River Theatre, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, NJ 07701. Box Office: 732-345-1400; online: www.trtc.org.
True West by Sam Shepard; directed by Robert M. Rechnitz