by Macey Levin
Sam Shepard is one of the country’s major playwrights having received nearly every award the American theatre and film industry has to offer. His major works include True West, The Tooth of Crime , Curse of the Starving Class , Buried Child (1979 Pulitzer Prize), Fool for Love , and A Lie of the Mind.
True West, first performed in 1980 at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco and currently at the Ghent Playhouse in Ghent, New York, has a structured plot unlike much of Shepard’s canon. In most of his other works the story line is fractured with flashbacks and flash-forwards accompanied by extensive, often rambling monologues. This play utilizes a perceptible dramatic arc while incorporating many of Shepard’s preferred themes… the bane of family, the fabled West vs. the real West, the fallibility of the American Dream. Though there are very intense and violent scenes, True West is laced with numerous comic moments.
Taking place 40 miles outside Los Angeles, Austin, a budding screenwriter with a suburban existence, is minding his mother’s house while she is on a trip to Alaska. His older brother Lee, an itinerant alcoholic small-time thief, suddenly appears after spending three months alone in the desert. Their bantering reflects their lifelong contentious relationship. Lee tells his brother that he has a better idea for a film about the real West rather than Austin’s mundane love story. After meeting Saul Kimmer, a film producer who is interested in Austin’s script, Lee wheedles himself into Saul’s favor by relating his plot concept. As the acrimony between the brothers builds, an emotional undercurrent slowly leads to a reversal of attitudes. Lee is intent on writing his screenplay and Austin wants to forsake all has to live in the desert. The arrival of their mother triggers a precipitous conclusion.
Their father, an offstage presence, dominates the lives of the brothers. He has lived in the desert for years since he left his wife and has become a raging alcoholic. Both Lee and Austin have a love/hate attitude toward him, but they are envious of his declaration of independence, living his life by his definition. Their recognition of this subtly motivates their turnabout of life choices.
For experienced actors the performing of a Shepard play is akin to climbing Mount Everest. For unseasoned performers it’s like climbing Everest, K2 and The Matterhorn piled on top each other. The actors in this production, as sincere as their work is, have not yet reached the level of ability required to portray the subtleties of a Shepard work, especially this one.
From the moment Lee’s (Nathaniel Drake) presence is felt by Austin (Kevin Kilb) there should be an overwhelming sense of menace and that the slightest misstep would propel Lee into a violent state. Rather, the tone that is created is one of simple sibling rivalry and vexation. Drake has the physical presence to intimidate but it is not supported by many of his line readings. Austin is an Ivy League graduate, married with children; Kilb plays him as an unsophisticated naif. Rob Weber delivers a superficial characterization of Saul Kimmer with posturing and artificial facial expressions while Stephanie Sloane looks lost as Mom.
Much of this is the responsibility of director Patrick White. His work seems to be unaware of Shepard’s intent, depending on the writer’s words but not his subtext. The last several minutes of the play should make an audience gasp. This doesn’t happen.
The set by Sam Reilly depicts a neat, somewhat cluttered kitchen, but the table at the audience left blocks the character who sits at the upstage side of it. This is probably due to the relatively small stage at the Playhouse. Initially, the costumes designed by Joanne Maurer define the characters; however, neither character changes clothes though the time span of the story is several days.
Ghent Playhouse should be respected for attempting to produce important plays by major playwrights, something many community theatres would not attempt.
The Ghent Playhouse presents True West; Directed by Patrick White; Cast: Kevin Kilb (Austin) Nathaniel Drake (Lee) Rob Weber (Saul Kimmer) Stephanie Sloane (Mom); Scene design: Sam Reilly; Lighting design: Isabel Filkins; Costume design: Joanne Maurer; Stage Manager: Arielle Lant; Running Time: Two hours; one intermission; The Ghent Playhouse, 6 Town Hall Place, Ghent, NY ; From 5/19/2017 – 6/4/2017