There is a certain grimy and dirty polish to the work of Sam Shepard that seems to make people debate over whether they really love him or just simply don’t understand the appeal. While I have always admired the work of Sam Shepard, I have never been a passionate fan like I have been for the works of Edward Albee, Eugene O’Neill, or August Wilson.
Shepard represented a sort of rough around the edges party boy born out of the Easy Rider milieu of the late 60s and a lot of that style flowed into his work in a way that was drastically different from many of his contemporaries.
I would have to say that his masterpiece is more than likely his 1980 offering called TRUE WEST, which is currently being revived by Roundabout Theatre Company on Broadway at their American Airlines Theatre.
This particular production is helmed by British director James MacDonald, who has frequently directed works by CarylChurchill, Christopher Shinn, and Sarah Kane. It stars Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke in the role of violent drifter older brother Lee and also Paul Dano as Austin, the younger and fairly successful screenwriter brother who is seeing his brother for the first time in five years while he is staying at their mother’s house while she goes on a trip.
Before I go further, I want to discuss my history with this play a little bit. When I was a senior in college, we had to choose a scene with our given partner to do in class. I wanted something challenging but also from something I absolutely loved. I really pushed to do the drunk scene of Jamie’s from O’Neill’s opus LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, but the truth was, Edmund really didn’t get to do as much in that scene so looking back, I can see why my partner wasn’t as into the idea. He actually wanted to tackle TRUE WEST and between the two of us, he had more of Austin tendencies than Lee’s, but I was also incredibly far from Lee.
Lee is a slovenly violent man who oozes masculinity…that was not me at all and I didn’t feel comfortable portraying it. The final results were basically disastrous. I didn’t put in the work I should have been but honestly, even if I had, I would’ve come off as incredibly miscast and awkward. Still, I put my guard up and just sort of admitted defeat and/or unintentional sabotage. So, as it stands, I have spent several years away from this material and was curious to go back to see it with a much more enlightened state of mind.
TRUE WEST is basically a sibling rivalry story at its most simplistic core. It also shows how someone that may be an amateur could have their own interesting ideas over someone who may be trying too hard to think of their own even though they are the professional in this situation.
Austin is married, has children, and is fairly successful as a writer, although it is implied that he may be struggling more now than he had been (it’s actually a flaw in the text as well as how it is presented via the actors/director) and when he plans to meet with a big Hollywood producer the next day, Lee shows up after Austin requests him to stay away and he ends up stealing the spotlight and even gets the producer to read a treatment idea that he has for a script, which Austin finds absolutely ludicrous. Still, the producer is oddly intrigued and Lee tries to convince Austin to help him write the script. What evolves from here is a melding of their two worlds as you sort of see that maybe these two brothers aren’t so different after all and that perhaps they bring out the best and worst in each other at various times.
Ethan Hawke is quite the remarkable Lee in that he basically reinvented the role under MacDonald’s direction. Normally, Lee is portrayed as a rather brutally dark character that is quite menacing…and sure, that quality is there, but Hawke imbues him with this almost lovable, sarcastic side that is actually surprisingly fantastic. I can see why some who may be more intensely devoted to the material would hate the switch, but I found it to be refreshing and also quite entertaining.
Paul Dano is a lovely actor and one of my favorites to come out of my generation, but in this role, he feels a little inconsistent and out of sorts. Austin is a deceptively tricky role because you have to start out as the “voice of reason” and “the sane one” while trying not to necessarily disappear behind Lee…and then you have to gradually descend into a drunken stupor as Lee’s demeanor sort of rubs off on him.
Act Two takes a very absurd turn when you see Lee take on more of an Austin approach trying to write his own script idea while Austin is laying on the countertop wasted out of his mind. However, there is still a sense of danger and menace missing ends up making the finale feel less tense than other productions have managed to accomplish.
When their mother comes home from her trip to Alaska, she just looks around her house as if the boys accidentally shattered a vase as opposed to the absolute disaster of pulled out cabinet doors and dead plants in full supply. It IS admittedly funny to see and the actress (Mary Louise Burke, who is known to many as the “That’s not how any of this works!” lady) does it very well but I can see why some may not like the angle. She treats them more like young children rather than the wild animal angle that many productions have taken in the past.
In the end, as someone who isn’t completely devoted to TRUE WEST but still views it as the masterpiece of one of the most prolific playwrights of the 70s and 80s, I found this to be a very well done production that took some chances and they mostly paid off…if you are willing to give them an open mind.