Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2009
Towards the end of Sam Shepard’s True West a mother returns home from an Alaskan cruise to find her two 30-something sons dead drunk and brawling all over her house, an activity in which they have been engaged for some time and so her furniture and belongings are thoroughly trashed.
It was at that point in the play that Shepard completely lost me.
I am the mother of two 20-something sons and I can tell you that if I returned home to a scene like that the first words out of my mouth wouldn’t be “I’m back.” You would be able to hear my screams and/or sobs for miles around, followed swiftly by the sounds of me physically ejecting my offspring from the premises.
I understand that Shepard was going for a certain surrealism here, but there are some things you can’t mess with and one of them is motherhood. The scene progresses to the point where Austin (Nate Corddry) is strangling his brother Lee (Paul Sparks) with a telephone cord and Mother (Debra Jo Rupp) still stands by passively. Nope, I’m not buying it.
In case you haven’t gathered by now True West is a violent play. In fact I recommend sitting in the back of the orchestra or up in the center of the first balcony (the sightlines are so poor from the sides and from anywhere in the second balcony that it should be a crime to charge money for those seats) both because of the violence with which the actors hurl large and heavy objects around the stage*, and reports that Ben Stanton’s lighting design shines painfully in the eyes of those sitting in the front portion of the orchestra.
That’s right, in a house built to be just as uncomfortable for audience members as is humanly possible (which is no fault of the WTF’s), director Daniel Goldstein and Stanton have conspired to make a bunch of the few tolerable seats intolerable. The director, or a designated assistant, should move around and sit in several parts of the house during tech rehearsals to make sure sightlines are as good as possible and lights are aimed properly. How much clearer could Goldstein make it that the paying customers are not his priority?
But back to the play on the stage. True West, written in the late 1970’s when Shepard was in his mid-30s, is considered one of his best plays. In a season where I have been writing a lot about what constitutes drama, as opposed to theatre, I am pleased to report that Shepard knows how to define character and build a plot. Whether you love it or hate it, Shepard has something to say and he says it as clearly as he can with Goldstein, Stanton and set designer Neil Patel getting in his way.
“The set should be constructed realistically with no attempt to distort its dimensions, shapes, objects, or colors...If a stylistic ‘concept’ is grafted onto the set design it will only serve to confuse the evolution of the characters’ situation, which is the most important focus of the play.”
– Sam Shepard, Note on Set and Costume Design for True West
The above quotation appears in the script, so there is no way that Goldstein and his design team didn’t see it, but they have chosen to ignore it. This is obvious not just from looking at the stage, but from reading the quotations provided in the program as being words from which the creative team took inspiration. They are all about the conflict between the reality and myth of place, the place in question being the American West. This is a recurring theme in Shepard’s plays based on his own life experience in the western states in the mid-20th century when they were no longer the frontier and when Hollywood was at the zenith of its preoccupation with spinning the myth of frontier life in the Wild West.
But on the page about True West on Shepard’s own Web site he provides the following quotation defining the play: "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.”
From this quote and the one dictating the style of the set, it is clear Shepard perceives True West as a play about character. Goldstein perceives it as a play about place. Actually, this is not a bad concept. I jotted down several notes about the myth of the Wild West, frontier living, living on the edge (the play is set in a suburban home 40 miles east of Los Angeles, paradoxically on the edge of both the city and the desert), living on a movie set (Patel and Stanton’s design concept), and Alaska as the last American frontier, which, ironically, Mother can’t stand. But as Shepard warns, concept must not be allowed “to confuse the evolution of the characters’ situation.” And, alas, it does.
Austin is an ivy-league educated screenwriter. He is married and his wife and children live 500 miles north of his Mother’s house which he is house-sitting in order to have some peace and quiet in which to write his current project. His older brother Lee, who he hasn’t seen in years, appears unexpectedly. Lee is a drunken, violent boor. A drifter, he claims to have been living on his own in the Mojave Desert for the past few months. We learn that Austin and Lee’s father, who we never see and who is presumably long divorced from their Mother, is also a destitute, homeless (and toothless), alcoholic.
Upon meeting Saul Kimmer (Stephen Kunken), the agent developing Austin’s screenplay, Lee immediately seduces him with his own story idea, which he terms a “real western.” Saul agrees to postpone Austin’s screenplay and have Austin write on Lee’s story (Lee, while intelligent, is barely literate), to Austin’s absolute horror. This is the tipping point. The sibling rivalry has been apparent from the outset, but from the moment he learns he will be subservient to Lee, Austin becomes angrier and angrier, and consequently drunker and drunker, until we arrive at the scene of devastation and debauchery on which their mother walks in.
“So they take off after each other straight into an endless black prairie. The sun is just comin’ down and they can feel the night on their backs. What they don’t know is that each one of ‘em is afraid, see. Each one separately thinks that he’s the only one that’s afraid. And they keep ridin’ like that straight into the night. Not knowing. And the one who’s chasin’doesn’t know where the other one is taking him. And the one who’s being chased doesn’t know where he’s going.”
- Sam Shepard, True West
While Austin, Saul, and Mother are people capable of behaving in socially acceptable ways, Lee is not, and since he is on stage constantly there is never a time when the other characters are safe. Consequently, True West is an Unpleasant Play (see my review of The Atheist for a definition of an Unpleasant Play as opposed to a bad play.) If you are looking for a light evening of entertainment, this is not the show for you.
When the WTF first announced their season Rob Corddry was to play opposite his real-life brother Nate. Somewhere along the line that changed and Sparks was added to the cast. (SMALL RANT: I hate the way theatre companies are all excited to announce when they’ve landed a casting coup and utterly silent when the deal falls through for whatever reason. I bet several people in the audience went thinking they were seeing the Corddry brothers. RANT OFF.) Anyway, it would have been very interesting to see actual siblings play these roles, if for no other reason than they would have looked like brothers. Corddry and Sparks do not, and it was only thanks to their acting skills that I bought them as relatives, but that illusion was primarily created by Corddry. Sparks used a western twang that neither his “brother” nor his “mother” possessed, making you wonder if perhaps he had been raised by coyotes as well as spending quality time with them in the Mojave.
Since I couldn’t buy the Shepard had written her character, I couldn’t buy Rupp in the role. She’s a fine actress and I am always happy to see her on area stages, but in “True West” her character was so painfully written and/or directed that I couldn’t wait for her to leave and come back some other day, in some better play, worthy of her talents.
I couldn’t find any indication is Shepard’s script that the character of Saul was gay, but that was certainly how Goldstein had Kunken play him. It worked, but it added to the nastiness of Lee’s character, which was plenty nasty enough for me without the image of him taking sexual advantage of Saul into the bargain. Gay or straight, Saul is a broadly drawn caricature of the sleazy Hollywood producer, to make him a broadly drawn caricature of a gay man as well didn’t make him anymore sympathetic.
If it weren’t totally the wrong set for this play and if the lights weren’t aimed in the audience’s eyes, Stanton and Patel’s concept would be an interesting one. A small ranch house, complete with a roof/ceiling, sits on a movie set in front of an attractively lit desert backdrop. As the audience enters, the house is facing upstage, as if we are not yet welcome inside. Then at the start the entire tech crew comes out and spins it around and runs it so far downstage that I feared for the occupants of the front row. Whatever you do, DON’T sit in the front row! You must be looking directly up the actors’ nostrils and are in danger of being hit by flying toast or worse.
RANT OF THE DAY: Yet another plea to the WTF to PLEASE train the apprentices/interns NOT to whoop and holler for their friends and NOT to laugh at “in” jokes when they are at a public performance. Surely they could attend a dress rehearsal where they could get all that out of their systems but when they are in the house with a paying audience they should behave professionally. The company clearly didn’t consider the need to give their apprentices and interns stage time when selecting shows this season, with the result that they are reduced to moving scenery in True West and standing around as set decoration in Knickerbocker, for which they then, inexplicably, get a curtain call. Ummm, stagehands don’t take bows, but if they must they shouldn’t receive louder applause than the actors. And it wasn’t the paying customers applauding, it was the WTF folks with whom the house had been papered. RANT OFF.
True West runs through July 26 on the Main Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs two hours with one intermission and is not suitable for children. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-597-3400.
*As a writer and, at this time of year, as a writer under constant, rolling deadlines, I did get a kick out of watching Lee bash the hell out of a typewriter with a golf club. I would have happily taken a couple of whacks myself!
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2009