- Chris O'Rourke
Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood in True West. Photo Michael Brosilow
If America's true north is west, then Sam Shepard's classic, True West, urges it to rethink the direction it's heading. Not the Wild West so much as the Californian West, where everyone is seduced by Hollywood. Whatever code of honour the pioneering West claimed, the gloves come off when pitching a screenplay. Doesn't matter who you have to climb over to secure a deal. Family, artists, the better talented or harder working, meritocracy become superfluous when success is decided on the whims of a golf game. So goes the American dream. If Steppenwolf Theatre Company's famed 1982 production helped cement both Sam Shepard's reputation and their own, their current revival makes clear why they are one of America's premiere theatre companies, and why True West remains a modern classic. Even if its current incarnation doesn't always find Steppenwolf at their sharpest.
It's a testament to Shepard's writing that True West remains fresh and vigorous, even allowing for some dated references. Set in summer 1980, Todd Rosenthal's timeless set is less Beverly Hills and more The Valley, evoking a liminal living space between rich and poor, the urban and the desert. The latter compressed into a corner view, the substance of myth and memory, a haven for potted plants and the distant calls of coyotes. Echoed in Richard Woodbury's country music sound design. Throughout, sibling doubles engage in archetypal feuds: art verses work, education versus life, older versus young, drama versus comedy, grift versus graft. The grift being Namir Smallwood's menacing Lee, an opportunistic older brother with a penchant for threats, manipulation and beer cans. The graft being Jon Michael Hill's all American Austin. Family man, works hard, respects his elders, Austin surely has a great future ahead of him.
Namir Smallwood and Jon Michael Hill in True West. Photo Michael Brosilow
With Mom (Ora Jones) away, the boys get to play, and dreams quickly turn into nightmares. As Austin house sits, busily completing his screenplay, Lee decides to gate crash for reasons unknown. What follows is a series of male power plays as Lee takes Austin for a proverbial ride, commandeering his car, his future, his agent Saul (Randall Arney), and Austin himself in a battle of male witlessness. After a little double dealing, a whole lot of alcohol, a bag of golf clubs and an unnatural amount of toasters, Mom's home sweet home world soon comes to resemble a tornado hit creche. One without adult supervision.
It's because of plays like True West that the term Dramedy was invented. It might kick off with gritty realism, but it gradually descends into all the best kinds of wild, ludicrous comedy. Yet its comedic balance and male power dynamics, under Randall Arney's direction, can seem somewhat askew. When it comes to the battling brothers, it's not that you expect a fair fight, or even a clean fight, but some sort of contest at least. Instead of a battle, prolonged bouts of bullying see Austin cringing like a cowardly lion cowering away from conflict. Even physical fights looks fake. Not that they shouldn't be fake, but they shouldn't look it. If sulking into a bourbon bottle produces a booze soaked backbone for Austin, it's just enough for him to try assert alpha male credentials, inspiring one of most hilarious situations in American theatre. But Austin never convinces he's anything other than a beta male, giving Lee no real competition or cause for concern. His violent flourish looking like a fluke. If the final image tries to say, "bring it on," it looks more like, "better run." Mom strolling in, as if from another play, further upends the imbalance. Forgetting it's sometimes funnier when you play for real rather than playing for laughs. In fairness, at this stage, she's walked into a full fledged comedy.
In recent years cultural and colour casting has led to a reappraisal of many classics traditionally performed by all white casts. The casting of black actors Smallwood, Hill and Jones proves a revelation, tilting the frame to show whole new perspectives while reminding us of shared similarities. Whilst also reminding us of the richness and robustness of Shepard's brilliant script and Steppenwolf's impeccable acting standards. Begging the question, when will Steppenwolf produce an all female version? Smart, funny, insightful, True West is intimately bound with Steppenwolf, universally seen as its standard bearer. Who are themselves smart, funny and insightful. A perennial classic performed by a world renowned theatre company. GIAF doesn't do things by halves.
True West, by Sam Shepard, presented by Steppenwolf Theatre Company in association with Galway International Arts Festival, runs at Town Hall Theatre, Galway until July 23.
For more information visit Galway International Arts Festival.