nytheatre.com review by Sophia Bushong
January 28, 2010
Part of the mission of the Los Angeles-based Athena Theater Company is to "invest in new voices for the stage." Given the continued vitality and relevance of acclaimed playwright Sam Shepard's artistic voice, one looks to a new production of his contemporary classic, True West, for an interpretation that we have not seen before. Unfortunately, a strong interpretive voice, one that adds to the collective conversation with and about Shepard, is not what the current production at the Lion Theatre has to offer.
This is not to say that there is a lack of talent on the stage or behind the scenes. The work of set and costume designers Stefan Depner and Susan Voelker and of fight choreographer Robert Tuftee is very effective. The matter is that some of the parts, the music and the scene transitions in particular, distract from the creation of an inspired whole.
The strength of this production is the charisma and skill of the actors playing the rival brothers. Lee and Austin begin as foils for each other, the former lives as a criminal and drifter, the latter as a Hollywood screenwriter and family man. The two quickly fall into a pattern of combat; a contest to see who can first inhabit and escape into the other's way of life. (A full summary of the play is available here.)
Brionne Davis embodies the hard-living Lee with a dangerous presence, as well as vulnerability. One senses a pain that is nearly too much for his body to contain. Ryan Spahn gives Austin an understated physicality. Each of his character's attempts to remain in control of himself and his life is a slow, beautiful reveal. The famous—or infamous—Shepard pauses are full and powerful, especially in Spahn's hands. We know that Austin is estranged from his wife long before the words are spoken.
Both actors give the characters a wonderfully "brotherly" physical life. Down to a similar way of running their hands over their heads, they have developed a whole range of common gestures. Their physicality becomes more and more similar as they morph into pained versions of each other.
The true anguish of the characters is the missing ingredient in the production. These actors seem capable of showing us the agony that losing one's family may cause, or the profound loneliness of a rootless life of thievery. Why this potential never quite shows up on stage is a bit of a mystery.
At the story's climax, Austin and Lee's mother returns home, pushing the tension between the two men into the realm of mortal violence. Here is where a strong directorial hand to guide the tone is most needed, and most missed. The mother's role is very demanding and strange, for all its brevity. Yet, Jen Forcino's directing of this character hits a note that is not disturbing, but wacky. Her entrance disrupts the gravity of all the events that precede her. The desire of her sons to destroy one another is genuine, not satirical. When the mother blithely steps over Lee's injured body, checks her makeup and leaves, it makes for a moment more appropriate to Christopher Durang than Sam Shepard.
The last moment is well-acted and the final tableau could be powerful. However, the Mother's scene leaves the audience bewildered in a way from which the show simply cannot recover.