- TORONTO STAR
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"A rollicking good time" - THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Austin, a screenwriter, and Lee, a petty criminal, are recently reconciled brothers with little in common. Confined together in a suburban home, Austin prepares for a lucrative meeting with a Hollywood producer, a connection which prompts keen interest from Lee. Shepard's searing black comedy takes apart the resentment of sibling estrangement to reveal that perceived differences are perhaps not all they seem. Coarse language.
Ari Cohen, Saul Kimmer
Patricia Hamilton, Mom
Stuart Hughes, Lee
Mike Ross, Austin
Nancy Palk, Director
Ken MacDonald, Set & Costume Designer
Graeme Thomson, Lighting Designer
Paul Humphrey, Sound Designer
Nancy Dryden, Production Stage Manager
AJ Laflamme, Assistant Stage Manager
Janet Gregor, Rehearsal Assistant Stage Manager
John Stead, Fight Director
Nick Andison, Assistant Lighting Designer
By Paula Wing, Associate Artist
True West is written by a man who is fascinated by duality. In his youth, Sam Shepard was an able ranch hand as well as an aspiring artist. He was in New York City during the '60s days of peace, love and flower power but he recalls those years more trenchantly: "It felt like everything was going to get blown up sky high. It was like Armageddon." Double nature extends even to Shepard's professional life: he's a prolific playwright who has a very successful career as a film actor.
As a writer, he drew his primary inspiration from two creators well known to our audiences: Samuel Beckett and Eugene O'Neill. He was especially struck by Long Day's Journey into Night: "There was something wrong with the family," he said. " ... a demonic thing ... that nobody could put their finger on ... and they were all taking desperate measures to stay afloat."
This description could easily refer to the fierce, unpredictable relationship between Lee and Austin, the brothers at the heart of True West. At first, they appear to be opposites: Austin a settled family man and screenwriter, Lee a drifter and small time thief. But the bonds of blood run deep and as the roots of the brothers' connection are exposed, each becomes reflected in the other. "It's a real thing, double nature," the playwright says. "I think we're split in a much more devastating way than psychology can ever reveal."
Another powerful influence on Shepard was jazz music, and while True West is more naturalistic than the plays that came before, a jazzy surrealism jolts through it as well. We think we're watching one thing and then we realize something else is actually going on and it's been there all along, right in front of us. This shock, this "unencumbered spontaneity" - in Edward Albee's approving phrase - is part of the genius of Shepard's work and it can be directly linked to the influence of Samuel Beckett. Beckett was, Shepard recalls with affectionate appreciation, the first writer who shocked him.
Perhaps double nature has an intrinsic power to startle because it resists easy answers. Even the title has a double meaning: it refers both to the wild West of the imagination, represented by the desert outside, and the new West of Hollywood, where Austin works, just 40 miles away. Double nature is "... not some little thing we can get over. It's something we've got to live with."
True West is the work of a writer at the top of his game. With tart humour and unflinching honesty, he grapples with the mystery of our deepest relationships, our deepest dreams. The deep dream of the old west was that it was a place to test yourself, reinvent your life, have wild adventures. It didn't always turn out that way. It didn't often turn out that way. But like this play it was always a helluva ride.
By Toby Malone, Ph.D
The relationship at the core of Sam Shepard's True West is as old as Cain and Abel: brothers such polar opposites that no interaction is ever simple, yet are held together with blood ties. The brothers at the centre of True West appear so far apart that disaster seems the only possible outcome - Austin is an up-and-coming Hollywood screenwriter, who has just reconnected with his dangerous petty thief of a brother, Lee. As Austin wrestles with a deadline, Lee buzzes around, convinced that the concept of making a quick buck selling a movie idea is something that he could do if he felt like it. As the drama progresses, it becomes clear that not only are these brothers more alike than they knew, but that there is more to each of their characters than had met the eye.
True West has a stunning performance pedigree, from its 1980 premiere at San Francisco's Magic Theatre, where Shepard was resident playwright. Soon after, it was seen at Joe Papp's Public Theatre, starring a young Tommy Lee Jones, before it was catapulted into the public consciousness with a searing revival at Chicago's legendary Steppenwolf Theatre. The then-widely-unknown Chicago stage actors John Malkovich, Gary Sinise (who also directed), and Laurie Metcalf struck on the predatory tone and jet-black humour at the core of Shepard's script, to acclaim that they rode all the way to the company's first New York off-Broadway transfer. During that production's long run and beyond, the lead roles of Austin and Lee were played by a litany of A-list actors (including John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who alternated the lead roles from night to night in a 2000 Broadway production) who saw in Shepard's meaty, angry, fractured characters a chance to flex their dramatic muscles. This is a play filled with an irrepressible, dangerous energy, peppered with Shepard's trademark darkness and audacious humour.
Many commentators group True West with a handful of Shepard's other plays as a means of categorisation: one such associated play is Fool for Love (1983), which saw an acclaimed Soulpepper production in 2005. After eight years, Shepard makes a welcome return to the company, under the guidance of Nancy Palk.