BWW Interview: Marylouise Burke Is a Conflicted Mom in TRUE WEST
Sibling rivalry at its worst takes its toll on home and hearth in the latest revival of Sam Shepard's TRUE WEST.
Unfortunately for Mom, it's her everything-in-its-place home that bears the brunt when the ingrained animosity of brothers Austin (Paul Dano) and Lee (Ethan Hawke) combusts. Mom, portrayed by the veteran actor Marylouise Burke, doesn't make an appearance until the second act, but she is mentioned frequently by both sons, as is an alcoholic father, unseen, who casts a malevolent shadow over all.
Austin, the seemingly more laid-back of the two, is a successful screenwriter and family man. He's house-sitting and working on his latest project while mom is vacationing in Alaska. Austin is not expecting the tightly wound Lee, fresh off a months-long escape in the desert. What ensues is the kind of controlled chaos familiar to Shepard aficionados.
"I feel so proud to be in this play," Burke said before a recent performance. The director, James Macdonald, "wanted to approach the story by going for the pain these characters are in," she said. "He succeeds."
Mom has faith that Austin will dutifully care for her collection of thriving houseplants while she's away. The house is in spotless order. Kitschy state spoons and plates complement the cheerfully appointed kitchen, replete with cherry-patterned wallpaper.
Shepard's devastating portrait of toxic relationships is as relevant today as when it was a 1983 Pulitzer Prize finalist. Some critics think this existential Cain and Abel story is the third in Shepard's trilogy, along with CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS and BURIED CHILD are the other two. Still others think TRUE WEST is part of a quintet that includes FOOL FOR LOVE and A LIE OF THE MIND.
"I think that all three characters in the play have been damaged by the father's alcoholism and erratic behavior," Burke said. "He's a specter haunting this play." Although she is backstage watching on a monitor for most of the production, Burke is grounded knowing that her character is central.
"Mom drives the whole thing. The very first lines in the show are about the mother," Burke said. "About her not wanting a single tea leaf in the kitchen sink, and how important it is to care for the plants."
The audience doesn't know too much about mom until the end. "You don't hear too many specific things about her. We know she's a good homemaker," Burke said with a laugh. "You get the sense that this isn't the house the boys grew up in. This is mom's house, and she's left her imprimatur.
"I think she's a smart lady trying to make her way in the world. She wants to meet Picasso!"
The cast spent numerous hours before previews discussing Shepard's work. "We talked a lot about Sam and how he spent so much time working through his father stuff," Burke mentioned. "He processed everything into art. And he had a real understanding of women."
When Burke makes her entrance, she's a vision in a patriotic red, white and blue vintage period dress and a beige and white coat. Her shoes complement the coat.
"It looks like a suit but it's a dress," Burke explained. "Mom loves the comfort, too. This is what she wore on the Greyhound!" she said with a laugh. Costume designer Kaye Voyce and Burke settled on the dress after she tried on seven different styles.
"The dress I wear in the show was the first one I tried on," she added.
TRUE WEST is a gritty, explosive play that resonates. "I think there are similarities to how people perceive masculinity today," Burke said. "What is acceptable behavior and how do real men act?" she asked. "What's true and what isn't? "
When Burke makes her entrance, the tension is palpable. Her house is in shambles and her plants are all dead. "Mom feels shock at the beginning when she walks in," Burke said. "Then the realization and the familiarity of it sets in.
"It's an echo of what it was like when her husband was part of the household. The fighting and the drinking and the manipulation and the abuse. I think the final blow is when Austin is behaving like Lee and the dad.
"When she realizes Austin's going to the desert, it's a metaphor for his state of being," Burke said. "But she's also accustomed to handling it by steeling herself. She's been through this before. When she sees the plants died from neglect, she says, 'Oh well, one less thing to take care of.'
"She did this all through their childhood. She comforts herself with order and being nourishing. The kitschy stuff is what keeps her stable, as did the relationship with Austin," Burke said.
Burke is a self-described late-bloomer, having come to New York when she was 32. She grew up in Steelton, Pa., where the vocational options didn't include the performing arts. "I was expected to be a teacher," Burke laughed. "But I wanted to express myself in a different way."
Inspiration came from an out-of-the-box-thinking aunt. "I had an aunt who was a black sheep in her generation," Burke said.
"She went to college and studied what she darned well pleased. She directed plays in college and was an inspiration to me, she encouraged me," she said. When Burke got the lead in A TASTE OF HONEY at a Philadelphia theater, family members began to take her acting more seriously.
When she came to New York, she supplemented her acting by taking temp jobs as a copy editor or typist. "I was a ridiculously late bloomer when I arrived in New York in '73," Burke recalled. "I'm a klutz, so being a waiter was not an option," she laughed. "I'm still a chronic proofreader. It gets me crazy when I find a mistake."
Burke didn't err when she agreed to join the True West team. "I didn't hesitate to work with James again. I have so much respect for him because he has a firm hand, but he also listens," she said.
"TRUE WEST is a wonderfully written play with humor, with themes and conflicts that work on so many levels, Burke said. "It's just a really good story."
TRUE WEST is playing at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street. Set designer is Mimi Lien, lighting designer is Jane Cox, fight choreographer is Thomas Schall and hair and wig design by Tom Watson.
Photo Credit: Linda Lenzi