Review: TRUE WEST at Arizona Theatre Company

The production runs through June 9th at Tempe Center for the Arts in Tempe, AZ.

By: Jun. 04, 2024
Review: TRUE WEST at Arizona Theatre Company
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Enter the performance hall at Tempe Center for the Arts. Hold on to your seats…take a few deep breaths…feel the warmth of Alexander Dodge’s immaculately detailed set…because…when the crickets begin to chirp and the coyotes howl, and when brothers Austin (Rhett Guter) and Lee (Zack Fine) take the stage, Sam Shepard’s TRUE WEST erupts into two hours of bruising and unbridled tension. You’ll breathe again after the final scene, and then, only to unwind in contemplation of what you have witnessed…to have marveled at the performances of two actors at the top of their form…to make sense of the rage and wreckage that brings brothers to the edge of madness. And, in time, you will ask whether the unremitting onslaught of chaos and volume ~ serves the playwright’s purpose… whether it leaves spaces for the audience to absorb and explore what the rage signifies.

Often, in theatre, less is more, and restraint can be impactful ~ what k. d. lang described as “physical containment and emotional expansion.” In giving her actors a wide berth to develop their characters, director Jenn Thompson may have erred on the side of excess. While the production is generally strong, more nuanced performances by the principals would offer a richer, more layered experience and open the portals to a deeper exploration of the play's overarching themes.

However, what Arizona Theatre Company’s production lacks in subtlety and nuance, it makes up for in a riveting marathon of sound and fury that manages to address Shepard’s intention:

"I wanted to write a play about double nature, one that wouldn't be symbolic or metaphorical or any of that stuff. I just wanted to give a taste of what it feels like to be two-sided. It's a real thing, double nature. I think we're split in a much more devastating way than psychology can ever reveal. It's not so cute. Not some little thing we can get over. It's something we've got to live with."

The play is set in a suburban California home where the biblical confrontation between brothers ensues.

Lee ~ the ne'er-do-well desert nomad and thief, who blows into the house like a tumbling tumbleweed…invading the privacy of his house-sitting brother, Austin.

Austin ~ Ivy-league-educated, urbanized family man, screenwriter on the verge of a major turning point in his career, typing the script that will change his life.

The intrusion is maddening. The build-up of conflict between Lee and Austin is intense and comes to a boil as Lee maneuvers Austin’s big shot agent, Saul (Geoffrey Wade) to invest in his fable about the West rather than Austin’s love story.

Fine and Guter deliver powerful performances, embodying the complexity and inner turmoil of their characters. Their chemistry and dynamic energy drive the play, making their rivalry believable and compelling. Throughout the first act, the tension between them is palpable. The second act boosts the temperature to torrid.

The play moves along at a brisk pace, accentuated by a beautifully managed musicality and physicality in the actors’ performances…especially in Fine’s, as he bounces off the walls like a bronco on speed.

The inner rhythm to the movement of the play stalls only when the brothers’ mother (Amelia White), whose house they have been occupying and ransacking, enters and finds the place in disarray. What might be a moment of comic relief or insight into the parenting that fueled the sons’ discontent falls flat. The character appears more oblivious than annoyed or bewildered.

The action bounces back, however, to a stunning finale.

Guter’s portrayal of Austin’s vulnerability and desperation is particularly poignant as he transitions from a composed writer to a man unraveling under the fear of losing his opportunity for fame.

Fine captures Lee’s raw, grimy, and unpredictable nature, bringing an intense, almost feral energy to the stage. His moments of introspection add depth to a character that could easily become one-dimensional.

The characters in this tale of confrontation evolve ~ or, perhaps, more accurately, devolve ~ into stark reflections of the duality of human nature. Each lust for meaning and fulfillment, expecting that they may find it in the other’s lifestyle. Both share the need for validation and meaning.

Both brothers seek their true north. For decades, that true north for aspiring Americans has been the West (most notably, as expressed in the Horatio Alger myth). But, in Shepard’s vision of the American landscape, that West is fading and American culture is fading.

We are left in TRUE WEST, at play’s end, contemplating the wilderness of American culture.

The bottom line: ATC’s production of TRUE WEST fulfills Shepard’s vision with a level of grittiness and intensity that, whatever one’s final decoding of the play, is a totally thought-provoking, gut-wrenching, and sensory experience.

TRUE WEST runs through June 9th at:Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe, AZ ~ 1-833-ATC-SEAT ~ Arizona Theatre Company ~

Photo Credit: Tim Fuller


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