BWW Review: TRUE WEST Explores Sibling Rivalry Sam Shepard Style
Sibling rivalry between brothers goes back to the Bible story of Cain and Abel, with one pitted against the other due to jealousy, often resulting in a deadly game of one upmanship. Such is the case between Lee and Austin, two estranged brothers at the center of Sam Shepard's TRUE WEST, who reunite at their mother's rustic home in the San Bernardino foothills about 40 miles east of Los Angeles. Sparks fly and passions rage as the two erratic characters, apparently from totally opposite ends of the success spectrum, nearly reach the end of their troubles by catching a glimpse of paradise just around the corner, which turns out to be totally unattainable.
Perfectly staged in the very small Vs. Theatre in LA's Fairfax District on a typical 70's goldenrod and avocado kitchen with an adjacent alcove seating area designed by Danny Cistone, the play begins with the younger, successful, clean-cut brother Austin (Johnny Clark, Artistic Director of Vs. Theatre Company) diligently working on his next screenplay while watching his mother's house while she is away in Alaska. He seems to be enjoying the peace and quiet while caring for her hanging plants, until his seemingly half-crazy older brother Lee (Andrew Hawkes) shows up, looking for his next place to crash and begins to take over the place as well as his brother's life.
Although Austin (the screen writer) does want to upset Lee at first, wary of his older brother's dead-beat ways, Austin seems to admire him, though he is smart enough not to trust him. You see, Lee is a typical fast-talking loser who survives on his own terms for as long as he can, finding any means of support while living from couch to couch. In fact, his latest venture hanging out in the Mohave Desert included eking out a living by stealing appliances or gambling in dogfights. And apparently, never worrying about how his filthy appearance and drunken demeanor affects others around him, much the same as their long-absent father.
The play's interesting twist of fate begins when Saul, a fast-talking Hollywood producer looking to cash in on the best story for his first big film, arrives to discuss Austin's burgeoning screenplay. Austin believes his dreams of fame and fortune are at hand, with Saul (David Starzyk, displaying a perfect combination of movie studio style and sleaze) ready to greenlight the project. After all, he has traveled out to the "boondocks" to discuss the story with Austin, and things seem to be going well.
That is, until Lee arrives and interrupts the meeting before the contract can be signed. For even though Lee simultaneously disdains and envies his younger brother's successful lifestyle, he seizes the opportunity to dazzle Saul with his own idea for his next big Hollywood movie: a true-to-life Western about two drifters on horseback. Saul surprising agrees, and Lee manages to enter the Hollywood elite, golfing with the movie producer and convincing him to conjure up $300,000 for a script synopsis, even though Lee doesn't know the first thing about developing a story and must convince his brother to drop his own project and work on his. And just how their sibling rivalry affects the brother's ability to work together is at the center of this powerful tale.
And of course, this being a Sam Shepard play, there has to be an outrageously physical confrontation between the two brothers, each at the other's throat during a true battle of epic proportions. Clark and Hawkes, as directed to animalistic perfection by Scott Cummins with Violence Designer Ned Mochel, totally trust each other during the fight and take it to the limit, no holds barred. Things turn especially ugly with most of their mother's treasured possessions being hurled to the floor along with whiskey bottles, crushed beer cans, and anything else the brothers can get their hands on during the melee.
And just as Austin is about to strangle Lee with the cord from the broken-off-the-wall telephone, their mother (Carole Goldman) walks in and gets the shock of her life. That mind-altering moment changes the family forever, and its brilliance cannot be fully described without revealing more than I should about the ending due to the all-encompassing sibling rivalry. Just go see it and be grateful you don't have to clean up the mess afterwards, as that task falls on the dedicated shoulders of Production Stage Manager Samantha Ramsey.
Vs. Theatre Company presents Sam Shepard's masterpiece TRUE WEST at Vs. Theatre, 5453 W. Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles, with performances on Fridays & Saturday at 8pm through September 28. There will be no late seating. Ample metered street parking is available near the theatre on Pico, Hauser, and Carmona Ave. All general seating tickets are $20, which may be purchased in advance at https://vstruewest.brownpapertickets.com or at the box office prior to performances. But given the theater's small capacity, please pre-purchase tickets to guarantee seating. For more information, please visit www.vstheatre.org.
Photo credit: Carlos R. Hernandez