Arrata Opera Centre
August 17 to 28, 2011
Like all of Sam Shepard’s plays, True West is about the mythical American family and the tensions, struggles, resentments and bonds they do or do not share. In the case of True West, the bond is brotherhood and the tension is rivalry. Austin, the younger brother is an Ivy League educated straight-laced Hollywood screenwriter writing a play while house-sitting for his vacationing mother. Lee is the drifter/thief who has been living out on the desert for months and unexpectedly shows up at his mother’s house. The brothers are polar opposites and have not seen each other for years.
Lee invites himself to a meeting with Saul, a movie producer Austin is working with, and charms Saul into producing an idea for a Western he has thought up. At first Austin is thrilled that Lee will be dedicating his time to something other than illegal activities, but his joy quickly disappears when he learns that not only does he have to write the screenplay, but that Saul has dropped his project in favour of Lee’s. The brothers drink and fight and throw punches and eventually get into what could be a deadly brawl that, like sibling rivalry itself, is never really solved.
The conflict and enmity of the characters is set up right from the start in Shepard’s script. Lee is the dominant and violently scary of the two while Austin plays the fearful yet hopefully placating role in the relationship. In other words, the big appeal of this play hinges on the believability in the brotherhood, the palpability of the strained relationship and the sense that at any moment the male testosterone will overflow and explode.
Unfortunately in this production of True West, Frank Zotter’s Austin and David Trimble’s Lee fail to give us the characterization each role requires and more importantly they fail to deliver any sense of familial connection or history making them totally unbelievable as brothers.
Zotter gives us an Austin that projects an effeminate cadence and body language instead of the square intellectual family man he is. His rages up and down as he spars with Lee feel acted as opposed to organic and his playing drunk feels just that – playing. The transition Austin must go through in the play from outrage to drunken stupor to a moment of wanting to be just like Lee and live the unencumbered life requires depth and finesse to allow the audience to join the journey. Instead, Zotter either moves too quickly or not quickly enough and this uneven rhythm leaves little room for audience empathy or connection.
Trimble’s Lee is handled better in the play, but just because he hits all the notes, it does not mean he hits any really good ones. Trimble’s ability to “go off” is there, but still has a stagey feel to it. The best examples of this come anytime Lee is called upon to show physical violence towards Austin. Instead of going for it and providing that much-needed male rage energy, Trimble hesitates slightly before each move sucking all the power out of the physicality and by extension the scene.
Saul and the brother’s mother, who eventually shows up back a home at the end of the play do nothing to add to the production and in the case of the mother, actually take away from the performance by delivering a confusing flat few lines.
Sam Shepard’s scripts are the type of plays that call for great actors. The stories themselves are often merely a vehicle for the kind of performances that acting connoisseurs will savour for years to come. By the weak applause at the end of Pangloss Production’s True West, it was apparent that this performance will not be one of them.
For the guys – The brotherly fighting and tension is luke-warm at best and the connection just isn’t there. SKIP IT
For the girls – No real insight into what a male sibling rivalry is like and forced anger make this almost funny instead of emotional. SKIP IT
For the occasional audience – It’s fine. But you deserve more than just fine. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – Watch the PBS TV adaptation starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise if you want to see this play done right. SKIP IT