True West - Review

The contemporary American playwright, Sam Shepard, has produced a substantial number of plays that look at life in America, often using unconventional dramatic styles. He has been described as the poet par excellence for drawing on his country’s mythic imagination and its debased frontier mentality.

I well remember Jerry Lyne's excellent production of Fool for Love back in 2003 in which Shepard introduced a surreal touch by the use of an on- stage narrator who also entered into the action. True West is an earlier play and to my mind is a less satisfying piece of writing.

It tells of two brothers, Austin, a successful screenwriter and Lee, an alcoholic drifter who thieves to survive. They meet up when Austin is house-sitting while their mother is away on vacation. He is working on a project prior to completing a deal with his producer when his peace is shattered by the arrival of Lee who then proceeds to hi-jack the project. He has an idea for a contemporary Western and manages to persuade the producer to take this up whilst rejecting his brother's.

This turn of events results in a reversal of roles with Lee, now struggling over the typewriter and Austin, taking to the bottle and turning to burglary – although his bizarre choice of electric toasters ensures some amusing comedy.
The play, depicting the two sides of American life and emphasising that one side is never far behind the other, ends with the two protagonists in a menacing stand-off - each person being the mirror image of the other.

Unlike some of his contemporaries Shepard can write dialogue and does not have to rely on continuous expletives to pad out the writing. In this play the bulk of the dialogue is concerned with anger and menace which came across in Calolm MacGregor's production as one long rant. Not only was it hard on the ears but soon became tiresome. Attention should have been given to the provision of more shading to the outbursts. It is possible to bring subtlety to convey anger rather than rely on continuous sledge hammering.

The play is virtually a two hander for Jack Bridgewater and Sam Parsons as Austin and Lee with a couple of brief scenes that featured their mother and the producer.

As Mom, Sandra Ventris did the best she could with a part that seemed to add nothing to the play other than to add confusion and comedy. Her arrival back home had more than a touch of lunacy as she looked on one son strangling the other and chided them from fighting in the house and suggesting that they fought outside like they did when they were children.

Andrew Thomas's performance as Saul Kimmer, the producer, seemed a little weak and did not come across as convincing. Maybe the fault lay in the writing – a caricature whose only function was to demonstrate Lee's skill as a con man.
Bridgewater taking on a leading role for the first time was successful in establishing Austin's soft nature and managed the character reversal reasonably well. The successful playing of a drunken scene is notoriously difficult to achieve and on this occasion the performance did not completely hit the mark – it appeared stilted.

As Lee, Parsons brought out all the feral qualities of a man who was happiest living in the desert with only himself for company. Most of the play's ranting fell to him and his performance would have benefited from the guidance mentioned earlier regarding variation of delivery.

Jeff Driver designed a substantial set that provided a realistic kitchen/diner and I liked the touch of the healthy plants being substituted by withered ones for the second act.

Barrie Jerram