The plays of the great Sam Shepard (Curse of the Starving Class, Fool for Love) always intrigues and challenges the mind to think broadly and abstractly about life and attachments. I remember years ago, too many to count, when I was at York University’s School of Theatre, all the young male actors in our small class; the deep thinking ones who were dying to be the next James Dean, migrated passionately towards Shepard and his enigmatic collection of plays. They all wanted to be caked with the Cowboy dust of Shepard’s absurdist West, and felt passionately drawn almost instinctively to portray his finely drawn rugged characters in the small student run theatre that I was a part of at college. Bleak and surreal, with a strangely poetic beauty entangled in their bones, these dark and sensual men that lived a lost life in Shepard’s black comedies tugged at these courageous young men’s hearts as if following the sweet manly scent of a desert cactus flower. They clamored to be part of his universe, possibly because his plays are centered around at least one rootless character that is something akin to an old worn out cowboy hat blowing and skirting along the outskirts of American society challenging its norms and its civility. To this brand of actor, the idea of playing such forlorn complicated men is intoxicating, as it has been the case for countless broadway actors and movie stars, like Bruce Willis (Showtime, 2002), Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly (Circle in the Square, 2000), Gary Sinise and John Malkovich (Steppenwolf, 1982) who have grabbed hold of one (or both) of the lead parts of True West, one of Shepard’s best, and happily pulled on those dusty old boots. The thrill and fire of playing at least one of these ying and yang brothers is igniting to a high and hot degree, but even more so when tackling the difficult task of alternating the parts, switching back and forth between these two warring brothers that sit at the center of this Pulitzer Prize nominated play (1983). The fuel for the fire is tied tight and entrenched in Shepard’s poetic words, but the power resides in the way these two young men and brothers are somehow cut from the same cloth, and in their differences resides a singular wild spirit, pulled by the framework of life in completely different directions, but similar and interchangeable just waiting and secretly wanting, unbeknownst to themselves, to trade skins.
Director James MacDonald, who so finely delivered across the pond the breathtaking MTC’s The Children, finds within these two contrasting and entwined souls the brokenness of the familial bond that is the essence of True West, dragging out the complexities of envy and regret that reside within their brotherly love. From within this group of actors doing impeccably strong and detailed work, Paul Dano (Broadway’s A Free Man of Color) has the challenge of playing, what first appears to be, the quieter and more contained Austin, a married man with children who dreams of writing a great romantic period piece screenplay. He hopes with the help of Saul Kimmer, played with LA slickness to the extreme by Gary Wilmes (2ST’s Mary Page Marlowe) that this enterprise will become his first motion picture and save him from mediocrity. As he sits and writes by candlelight in the kitchen of his mother, played hilariously and oddly by the glorious Marylouise Burke (Signature’s Everybody), who is away on holiday in Alaska of all places, his alter-ego brother shows up looking like he’s stepped out of a Clint Eastwood Cowboy movie, menacing and distracting the focused young writer who thinks he has it all figured out.
Ethan Hawke (Broadway’s The Coast of Utopia) is that wild and dangerous brother, Lee, pulling out all stops, bravely and proudly torturing his brother, trying to intimidate and belittle at every turn. We can see the desperation that resides underneath the desert dust, dulled by the numerous beers poured freely down his dry throat. He tries, with well enacted bravado to quench the thirst of want and envy, but it twitches out here and there as the battle for dominance and entanglement ramps up during the powerfully electric first act. It’s a stellar dynamic on display, teasing us with danger but never really letting us in on the plan.
On the perfectly framed set by designer Mimi Lien (Broadway’s The Lifespan of a Fact) with defining costuming by Kaye Voyce (Signature’s At Home at the Zoo), the sometimes abstractly spotlight lighting by Jane Cox (RTC’s Noises Off) seems to formulate a more mythological perspective, similarly to the smart original music and sound by Bray Poor (Public’s Office Hour). The production does a grand symbolic balancing act between absurdest and realism that enhances the clashing of egos and envy residing in these two brothers’ hearts, never letting the detailed kitchen design overrule the fantastical enactment of the dynamic sibling rivalry. It plays out gloriously, fueled by champagne, whiskey, and beer. The destruction is real, but the mess that explodes forth as these two swap places in the second act is hypnotic and delightful. Although not as powerfully menacing as the first act, Dano gets his moment to shine, almost eclipsing the brilliant Hawke. He twitches and thrusts his gangly arms forward with escalating frustration and anger, as he watches the world that he once held tight with such deliberate desperation be blown away by the frighteningly destructive desert winds. Toasters are the items that begin to define his bravery and abandonment, acting as proof against his brother of potential, but it’s in those last few moments of strangulation that the wildness of the desert blows the strongest. True West is really a two horse and rider show, and with these two skilled actors in the saddle, both riding hard towards the dream and being chased desperately by the other, this western saga finds its buried reward.
It’s no wonder those testosterone-filled young male acting students from theatre school were so drawn to these Shepard men, deconstructing their vanity and their desire with an alcohol-deadening heat coming face to face with their opposing options. It’s compelling even within its dust swirling confusion. Not surprisingly in the current world of fragile hyper-masculinity, this explosive play is finding a new place on the desert horizon. It is also currently being ignited at the Vaudeville Theatre in London’s West End for the first time, starring Kit Harrington (“Game of Thrones“) as Austin and Johnny Flynn (“Beast”, “Genius“) as Lee, and directed by Matthew Dunster (Royal Court/ATC’s Hangmen). It fits precisely inside our modern problematic alliance with what it means to be a masculine creature and a caring man. Dano and Hawke do the work proud. I can’t really image them shape shifting from one brother to another, like they did in the infamous Hoffman/Reilly Broadway production back in 2000, as their boots and shoes seem to fit these two actors as if each role was hand-crafted for their dynamic souls. They deliver a purposefully detailed deconstruction of all the pre-existing and constructed norms of masculinity, smashing them down into the dust, so two sides of the male psyche can stand, face to face in the wide open desert space, daring the other with all their might to see who wins the battle for dominance.