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BWW REVIEW: The Inescapable Curse Of A Dysfunctional Family Erupts As Brothers Reunite In TRUE WEST.


BWW REVIEW: The Inescapable Curse Of A Dysfunctional Family Erupts As Brothers Reunite In TRUE WEST.

Friday 5th February 2021, 8pm, Flight Path Theatre

Sibling rivalry and inherited trauma collide with explosive force in Georgina Symes' (Director) expression of Sam Shepard's (playwright) TRUE WEST. As a 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist, TRUE WEST naturally focuses on exposing average American life but it holds a relevance for an Australian audience as the underlying issues can affect anyone, regardless of geography.

TRUE WEST, which was first performed in 1980, sees estranged brothers Austin (Ryan Bown) and Lee (Austin Hayden) reunited in their mother's (Jo Briant) home, somewhere in the suburbs outside of Los Angeles. Austin, a mild-mannered, well-educated screenwriter is housesitting and meant to be using the peace and quiet away from his wife and family to do research for a screenplay he is pitching to Hollywood producer Saul (Tom Harwood). The serenity of crickets chirping and coyotes baying in the night is disturbed when his wayward brother Lee turns up and proceeds to pester him, popping open more cans of beer, before the suburbs are sufficiently asleep for him to go to 'work' stealing from the neighbors. The men appear to be polar opposites, yet both talk of having tried to reconnect with their absent father who appears to be an alcoholic with money problems who couldn't handle a suburban settled life, much like the path Lee has followed and Austin has railed against.

For this work, which takes place solely in the domestic setting of the kitchen and sunroom of the 1970's Californian home, the rectangular space of Flight Path theatre has been contained to a more compact square to reinforce the idea that the men don't really have anywhere to retreat to. Kitchen cabinets, breakfast bar and sideboard filled with collected china dominate the linoleum lined 'internal' space while Astroturf marks the sunroom space where Austin has set up his typewriter on a white garden setting. The plants that Austin is supposed to be looking after adorn nearly every available surface inside and create a green oasis in the sunroom. The character of the men is captured in the costuming with Austin presented as clean-cut conservative while Lee is in torn well worn clothes that probably havent seen the inside of a washing machine in a while.

Bown and Hayden deliver naturalistic performances that are astounding in their commitment to the level of physicality as the tensions rise. Initially it appears that Lee lives in a state of perpetual inebriation and Hayden expresses this with ease as he stumbles and dances around the space, ensuring that Lee's behavior is contrasted with Austin's controlled manner as Bown ensures that it is clear that Austin is used to reining in his emotion and also trying to diffuse his brother's, and by inference, their father's, volatile nature. As the roles reverse when Lee has 'stolen' Austin's opportunity for success, Bown's commitment to being a fall-down-drunk, reflecting the younger man's inexperience with holding his alcohol like his brother, is comical while not being overplayed. As with the expressions of intoxication, Bown and Hayden's presentation of the brother's physicality towards each other is also done with remarkable realism, directed by fight choreographer Scott Witt, which has the audience wondering if they'll destroy the set in the process.

TRUE WEST is a bold, dark and often comic work that exposes an evolution, or rather regression, of humanity linked to a tendency inherited from the boy's father. While Lee briefly dreams of success and having the money to help their father, his scheme and gamble has screwed over his brother and bought Austin down to his level as both men eventually desire to give up any idea of 'normality' and conforming with society's ideals and disappear into the desert where the rules of suburban civilization don't apply. It also exposes the truth of the statistics that Lee recounts of the source of many murders being family related as somewhat of an inevitable conclusion when both men have such latent aggression and unresolved sibling rivalry. It also raises the question of what more could have been done to save these boys from their future as we see a mother who seems conditioned to turn away and ignore anything that disrupts the order of her world rather than deal with it as she appears more concerned with the state of her plants than the brawling men.

A powerful piece of theatre that is presented with alarming honesty despite some of its absurdity. Bleak and comic in turns, TRUE WEST is a rollercoaster into a destructive truth that was often hidden by a world that wanted to see the American Dream on stage and screen rather than the gritty reality of those for whom a white picket fence and conformity was not going to be the answer.

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