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Maybe not since Cain and Abel have there been two fierce brotherly rivals like Lee and Austin in True West. The Open Door Theatre's powerhouse production of this dark and visceral 1980 comedy by Pulitzer Prize winning American actor/playwright/director Sam Shepard (Buried Child) stars Open Door artistic director Michael Babbitt as Lee and Triangle theater veteran Kevin Poole as Austin.
Lee is a scruffy drifter and a petty thief who breaks into houses to steal TV sets. Austin is a successful Hollywood screenwriter house-sitting for his mother (Diane Gilboa), who is vacationing in Alaska. As Austin whips his latest screenplay into shape, Lee arrives unexpectedly, with larceny on his mind, and stays long enough to meet movie producer Saul Kimmer (Jeff Buschmann), who prefers the colorful tall tales that Lee spins about the American West to Austin's more prosaic project. When Saul discards Austin's idea in favor of Lee's far-fetched story, Austin ends up working on Lee's screenplay.
This appalling turn of events — and an epic drinking binge — have Austin and Lee at each other's throats. Not even the surprise return of their nonplussed mom can cool things down.
Director Benjamin Beecher gets gritty performances from all four players. Michael Babbitt is highly amusing as light-fingered Lee. Kevin Poole is terrific as the squeaky-clean Austin, who one drunken night finds himself burglarizing toasters (toasters!) from his mom's neighbors just to prove to Lee that he can.
Jeff Buschmann is good as Saul the profit-minded producer, and Diane Gilboa contributes a crisp cameo as the mother of these two spiritual descendants of Cain and Abel.
Set designer Daniel Wheeless' unusually detailed set is one of Open Door's best, and so are the myriad props created by Allison Tytell and technical director Steve Tell. The outfits created by costume designer Melanie Hayes are appropriately grungy for Lee and comparatively dapper for the rest of the characters.
Sound designer Melissa Vassilion does a fine job, and lighting designer Steve Dubay skillfully illuminates the action. But it is the luminous performances by Open Door's all-star cast of True West make this production one of the highlights on the new theater season.
The Open Door Theatre presents True West Friday-Saturday, Jan. 17-18 at 8 p.m. and Sundays, January 5, 12, and 19 at 5 p.m. in The ArtsCenter, 300-G East Main St., Carrboro, North Carolina. $12 ($10 ArtsCenter Friends, students, and seniors and $5 student rush 15 minutes before each performance). 919/929-2787. http://www.theopendoor.net/season2002/truewest.shtml [inactive 8/03].