nytheatre.com review by Lisa Ferber
October 8, 2006
Sam Shepard's True West is the story of two adult brothers: the angry, restless, menacing drifter Lee (a very convincing Zack Calhoon, who seems to really enjoy this role and throws himself into it completely), and the low-key, introverted, very not-menacing screenwriter Austin (Jordan Meadows, who does good work and often seems nonchalant about crazy Lee's presence, the way that siblings can never truly find each other scary because they've been around each other's behavior millions of times). When their mother goes on a trip to Alaska, Austin holes up in her house to do some writing. He is paid a surprise visit by his disheveled brother, who has been living alone in the desert and makes his living through petty crimes. Lee seems proud to be a maniac. He knocks things over, delivers lines like "I don't sleep" as though sleep is for sissies, and he makes himself into an emblem of freedom, looking down on Austin and, most probably, everyone else in the world.
It is clear from the get-go that Lee's presence will not lead to anything good for Austin.
Slick film producer Sol, who describes Palm Springs as "the desert" and keeps his sunglasses on indoors, comes over to discuss Austin's screenplay. Out of nowhere, Lee turns on a heap of charm, becoming a charismatic salesman of his own idea for a "true western." He professes his love of golf (which the audience can tell is a lie) so that he can spend time with Sol and discuss his project, destroying Sol's previous interest in working with Austin. The tables turn as soon as Lee goes from aimless drifter to determined screenwriter. Sol is played by a very confident Brian McFadden, whose presence is so big and delivery is so good that virtually everything he says earns a laugh.
There's good direction here, by Kate Ross, the pacing slow enough to give that stark, nothing-going-on-but-what's-inside-this-house feeling that the play needs. The production could benefit from an even stronger feeling of claustrophobia, either through direction or staging, to make the audience feel even more threatened by Lee's presence, but as it is everything works out very well. There's also a wonderfully bluesy soundtrack between scenes, which keeps the ambience going.
The actors win points here for refraining from a lot of yelling. It's easy when doing Shepard, or any play involving frustrated young men, to engage in that most obvious vehicle for expressing anger. Instead we get a more complex performance here from Calhoon, who shows his disregard for everything with body language and sinister delivery. Calhoon also manages to deliver a fair number of irreverent burps throughout the show without the aid of any form of carbonated beverage, a skill I found quite admirable.
The play speaks about so many things, not least of all strange family dynamics. The same way that in any family one child might be the "artist," pigeonholing the other child as "the practical one," in this play the two brothers make up one whole, and it's clear that they have been like this since childhood. It's also clear that when the tables turn and one brother steps into the other's territory, that other will more than make up for it by doing the same.
There's also a moment involving the mother (played very well as daffy and disinterested by Ruth Ann Phimister) which I won't reveal here, but it's a surprising choice that probably does take place in many families, whether we like it or not.
One thing I didn't quite believe is the fight scene. Now, this might be because Calhoon so convincingly carries himself like a man ready to fight at any moment, and Meadows has so embodied the semi-effete "just leave me alone with my typewriter" anti-physicality of the bookish Austin. It's a tough thing to convincingly show the clearly weaker character overtaking the stronger one, and this got off to a rocky start—I'm not quite convinced that Meadows's Austin has enough rage in him yet to overwhelm his beefier and clearly more naturally violent brother.
Shepard's writing itself balances rough family drama with moments where you find yourself laughing without expecting it. When Lee says to his brother about his project, "It's not a film; it's a movie! In this country, we make movies. Leave the films to the French," it's funny even though we are still watching a threatening nutcase take over his brother's quiet space.
Across the board the acting is believable, with no one getting unnecessarily dramatic (in Shepard plays the emotions can run so high, there's plenty of room for cringe-inducing performance). This is a very good production, and one I would recommend for any Shepard fans or those new to his work.