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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

True West
Arizona Theatre Company
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's recent reviews of The Hairy Ape and Fiddler on the Roof

Zack Fine and Rhett Guter
Photo by Tim Fuller
Sam Shepard's True West is a riveting black comedy that explores the themes of sibling rivalry, brotherhood, jealousy, and how the line between order and chaos can sometimes be very thin. With only a few small shortcomings, Arizona Theatre Company's production of this American classic brings these themes to life with intensity due to an excellent cast who create authentic portrayals, crisp direction, and superb creative elements.

The plot centers on two brothers, Austin and Lee, whose contrasting lifestyles come into conflict when Lee shows up unannounced while Austin is housesitting at their mother's home. Austin is a successful screenwriter with a stable life, while Lee is a drifter and small-time thief. As the plot unfolds, Lee's raw, untamed nature begins to encroach on Austin's orderly world. When Lee pitches a movie idea that captivates a Hollywood producer, their roles start to reverse and Austin finds himself drawn to his brother's lawless lifestyle.

After working mostly Off Broadway for many years, Shepard exploded onto the theatre scene when his play Buried Child won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979. True West, which premiered in 1980, was also a Pulitzer finalist. The way Shepard depicts the power struggle between the brothers in True West is darkly comic, deeply tragic, and also entirely realistic at times. Shepard's dialogue beautifully highlights the complexity of Austin and Lee's relationship while also showing how their fractured brotherly bond is related to contempt and jealousy but also connected to a strange desire for each of them to want what the other has.

Director Jenn Thompson has a keen understanding of the play and the characters and she brings a clear vision to the production, with one caveat. Her pacing is taut, which keeps the audience engaged from the beginning, and she elicits powerful performances from the cast, including Rhett Guter as Austin and Zack Fine as Lee. However, Thompson adds a coda to the end of the play that is both interesting and intriguing but may cause some confusion from people who don't know the play and concern from those who do. It's not bad, and is definitely original, but for Shepard purists it could prove to be a bit of a head scratcher.

Zack Fine portrays Lee with an electrifying presence that is magnetic and recklessly unpredictable. Fine brings a raw energy to the character, depicting Lee's wild and volatile nature in a performance that is both intimidating and captivating. His ability to seamlessly navigate between menace and vulnerability adds depth and realism to this complex character.

Opposite him, Guter's nuanced performance conveys Austin's initial control as well as his growing frustration and desperation for his brother to leave him alone so he can focus on his work. His eventual unraveling as his professional and personal life start to spin out of control is well done. Guter makes Austin both sympathetic and compelling, allowing the audience to understand and feel his internal conflict and to be compassionate about his ultimate breakdown.

The chemistry between Guter and Fine is authentic, conveying the volatile and competitive relationship naturally. Under Thompson's direction, their excellent performances drive the tension and drama of the play, with each confrontation crackling with intensity. Brent Gibbs' fight choreography is fairly impressive with the actors' physicality and emotional range bringing authenticity to their interactions and making the audience feel as if they are witnessing a real familial clash. However, while there is a definite hint of danger in the staging, it could be ratcheted up a bit so we truly feel the characters are unhinged and that anything can and will happen.

In smaller roles, Geoffrey Wade is appropriately charming and also slimy as the Hollywood producer Saul Kimmer, and Amelia White is impressive as Austin and Lee's mother. The creative elements are superb. Alexander Dodge's set design of a suburban kitchen that serves as the backdrop and a battleground for the brothers' conflict is infused with meticulous details that give it an authentic lived-in feel. Philip Rosenberg's rich lighting perfectly depicts various times of day, and the immersive sound design by Ken Travis heightens the tension as it impressively portrays the loud noise of the crickets at night as well as the hungry coyotes who are just off in the distance and, it seems, getting closer. Alejo Vietti's costumes create a lived-in feel for the characters; Lee's stained t-shirt, sunburned face, and dirty feet clearly depict a man who has been living in the desert for months. The original music by Angela Steiner adds a nice evocative touch to the scene changes.

With strong performances and sure-footed direction, Arizona Theatre Company's production of True West does a good job of capturing the play's raw energy and emotional depth. Whether you're familiar with Shepard's work or new to his plays, this is a powerful and thought-provoking production, even if the addition to the ending is intriguing but also slightly awkward if you know the play.

True West runs through June 9, 2024, at Arizona Theatre Company Theatre with performances at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Mesa AZ. For tickets and information, please visit or by call 833-282–7328.

Director: Jenn Thompson
Scenic Designer: Alexander Dodge
Costume Designer: Alejo Vietti
Lighting Designer: Philip Rosenberg
Sound Designer: Ken Travis
Fight Director: Brent Gibbs
Original Music: Angela Steiner
Stage Manager: Amber R. Dettmers

Cast: (in alphabetical order)
Lee: Zack Fine *
Austin: Rhett Guter*
Saul Kimmer: Geoffrey Wade*
Mom: Amelia White*

*Member, Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States