Theatre In the Park opens its 2016-17 season with an ambitious undertaking: three distinct plays in three weeks, each running from Thursday to Sunday. Opening this past Thursday night was Sam Shepard's True West, a tale of two brothers at loggerheads, who end up switching places in their roles as breadwinner and brawler. Opening next Thursday is Almost, Maine, a play about love in many of its forms, all of which take place simultaneously one winter night in Almost, ME. The following Thursday brings us Southern Baptist Sissies, an award-winning play about four boys growing up gay in the repressive South, and how each boy handles his dilemma. All three shows have their own cast and director(s), but all three are designed (set and lights) by Thomas Mauney and costumed by Elaine Brown.
True West, Sam Shepard's signature play about trading places, focuses on Lee and Austin, two brothers who have grown up very differently. On the one hand, Austin seems the well-adapted one, the one who went to college, married, and has a budding career as a screenwriter. Lee, on the other hand, is a ne'er-do-well who scrapes out a living by stealing. He has no career or even a permanent address, and spends most of his time using his brother's car, having never worked long enough to be able to purchase one of his own.
The play stars Jesse R. Gephart as Lee and Ira David Wood IV as Austin; the two direct each other in this play about the competition of brothers and how, under the right circumstances, the two can completely exchange places. Also playing in True West is Larry Evans as Saul, the producer who is to read and maybe take on Austin's screenplay, and Kathy Norris as the boys' mom. Austin, who actually lives with his own family to the north, is house-sitting for Mom while she goes on vacation in Alaska. So it is here that Lee, who has always distrusted his brother, decides to beard the lion in his den.
Lee, although the elder of the two, has never been able to apply himself to any kind of career, other than the petty thievery he manages in Act I. He passes his days by living in the desert and staying one step away from the law. Austin is industrious; he has had his schooling and is on the verge of getting into the movie business with this project he has planned with Saul. But Lee throws a monkey wrench into Austin's plans by hijacking Saul; he gets the producer to play a game of golf with him, and over the links he convinces Saul to abandon Austin's project and take on his: a modern take on a Western. Saul and Lee have decided that Austin can actually write the screenplay; he'll have the time now that his pet project has been sidelined.
Austin is livid, but he is also afraid of his big brother, who seems to have bullied him over a long period of time. This is evident by the fact that Lee often lays threatening hands on Austin. But to have his own ideas abandoned for Lee's "trite" creation is just too much. Austin refuses to abide by the duo's decision. If Saul wants Lee's storyline, Lee will simply have to write it himself.
Wood and Gephart handled the descent into madness by these two quite well, aided by a large amount of drink and not a little nicotine. In the process, they trash Mom's house, breaking the furniture and allowing her precious houseplants to die. At one point, Gephart displayed Lee’s frustration with his inability to put his plan onto paper by snagging the ribbon of Austin's typewriter and adroitly handling the comic enterprise of frantically destroying it.
As the long days accumulated through the course of the play, it was clear that both brothers were becoming more and more inebriated, as well as more and more frustrated with each other. It is to the actors' credit that we did not actually sense the moment when things turned from comic to deadly. But once the line was crossed, things descended quickly.
Gephart and Wood have given us a quick and substantial work, giving each other direction and melding the process adroitly. We are given what seems to be a preposterous premise, and we watch as that premise turns into reality. These four veteran actors gave these characters life and believability, and the process that turns notion into action is exciting to watch. At the start of this play, the ending would seem preposterous; but as things progress, preposterous becomes possible, then probable. By the climax of the play we understand how things have come to this pass.
Theatre in the Park has a roaring start to their three-play project, but be quick; these shows run for only one weekend each. True West seems the perfect beginning. We'll return to TIP to see the close of the run with Southern Baptist Sissies, later in the month.
True West continues through Sunday, September 11. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.