Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Michael Brosilow.
What is the “true west”? Is it deserts and prairies and stories about unassailable heroes and black-hatted villains? Is it California, with Hollywood’s fantasy machine? Or is it to be found in the pleasant suburban homes that now have sprung up seemingly everywhere in what once were wide open spaces? Steppenwolf Theatre explores all of these aspects of the American West in its revival of the play that put it on the map back in 1982, Sam Shepard’s True West, and amid the violent sibling rivalry and the palpable failure of the American Dream, director Randall Arney finds plenty of comical and often hilarious moments to mine.
Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood star as Austin and Lee, two brothers with vastly different value systems. Austin, an Ivy League-educated man with a wife and family “up north,” is trying to make a name for himself as a Hollywood screenwriter. To this end, he is house-sitting for his mother as she vacations in Alaska, hoping to use the solitude to finish his script. To his dismay, he is descended upon by his older and intimidating brother Lee, a drifter who robs houses to make money and has been living alone in the desert. When Lee, who initially makes fun of Austin’s way of making a living, decides to try to sell a story he has come up with—a ridiculously cliché tale about two men chasing each other through the Texas Panhandle—the brothers end up on a collision course. And when Lee convinces the producer who has been interested in Austin’s story (Francis Guinan, reprising his role in the original production) to go for his instead, it leads to the collapse of the younger brother’s ideals and self-image.
Looming over them both is the image of their father, a broken, destitute, alcoholic failure who (like Lee) lives somewhere in the desert. Both brothers profess their love for him, but they each are afraid that in some way they could become him. At the start, Lee seems more likely to fall into this trap, but Austin is not as far away as he’d like to believe, and as he slips more and more into desolation after his dream is usurped by a brother who can hardly even write, nothing, not even his respect for their mother (Jacqueline Williams, in a brief appearance near the play’s end), can stop his more base nature from taking over.
Hill and Smallwood are both phenomenal here. The sibling relationship is made clear almost from the first scene and, though surprises abound as the power in their dynamic shifts back and forth, remains that way throughout the play. These are two of the newer members of Steppenwolf’s ensemble, and they handle this iconic material with an aplomb that comes as no surprise whatsoever. What is more surprising, though, is how funny this play is. Shepard, justifiably, is not known for his comic stylings. Say “Sam Shepard play” and you conjure thoughts of heavy drama, especially family drama. Here, however, despite the serious undertones of the plot and the violence (oh, yes, there is violence) that occurs, Arney and his actors keep the audience laughing throughout. This is a Shepard play that, despite its status as one of his finest and best-known, I had never managed to see before, and I admit that the amount of humor in this production caught me off-guard. Though he didn’t use it as much in other plays, Shepard was clearly well aware that the awkward familiarity of families breeds not only contempt, but a lowering of psychological guards; these men are more themselves around each other than anywhere else, and emotions are intensified, leading to explosive drama as well as the kind of moments when, if only to intentionally prick each other’s nerves, siblings dig at each other with humor. It doesn’t diminish the drama of the play; it enhances the realism.
To judge from this play, the true west is realized more by the wild call of the desert than the undramatic sameness of suburbia. Harkening back to its roots, Steppenwolf once again puts this on display with its focus on the sometimes volatile nature of human beings, but at the same time delivers a production that never fails to entertain. Revisiting one of its greatest accomplishments, it has created a brilliant new one to add to the mix.
True West is now playing at the Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St, Chicago through Aug 25. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.