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Western Disunion 

Theater Review: True West

Published October 17, 2006 at 8:28 p.m.

You don't have to be a leaf-peeping tourist to quest for something authentic amid the development and despoiled terrain that mar the nation's landscape. In 1980, playwright Sam Shepard lamented the eradication of something essential to the American West in his play True West. On one level, the story is about two middle-aged brothers who grapple with their differences over the course of a few days in their absent mother's Southern California home. On another level the play is a ragged meditation on how people make their peace - or don't - with a world ever changing, and not always for the better. A quarter-century later, the current Vermont Stage Company production shows that the play still speaks poignantly to the challenge of finding oneself in a cultural context, and then finding oneself again in one's own family.

Shepard conceived True West as an exploration of an individual's "double nature." In the VSC production, directed by Stephan Golux, brothers Lee and Austin, played by David Bishins and Justin Walvoord, respectively, appear as two sides of the American identity.

Lee is the wild heart of the Western frontier. As he stands drinking a beer and eyeing his brother across the room, his sunburned complexion and piercing gaze suggest some desert creature that has crawled into a tidy suburban home. Austin represents the opposite extreme: In crisp sport shirts and blue jeans, pecking away on a typewriter at the dining-room table, he comes across as a neutered indoor pet. From the first moments of the opening scene, one senses an impending territorial battle.

In the ensuing contest, Lee has the upper hand. A drifter and small-time thief who's been living in the Mojave Desert, he acts as something of an emissary from a culture under siege - that of the rugged frontiersman - as well as from a shared past with Austin that's rank with unfinished business.

Bishins turns in a strong performance as Lee, opting to intimidate and project fury more often than resignation and pain. He affects a menacing stage presence in the manner of villains that sow unease in every moment in which they appear. His glower speaks volumes about his disgust at what his fussy little brother has become - and at what the likes of Austin have done to the world.

By contrast, Ivy League-educated Austin has been making a decent living not by railing against reality but by mediating it through his film scripts. And he might have gone on happily contriving worlds more desirable than the real one, had his brother not arrived to shatter the illusions. Justin Walvoord plays his part well - combed over, tucked in and officiously nice to his wayward sibling, until Lee begins pushing his buttons. Walvoord may not be the most believable stage drunk, but the more nuanced the moment, the more skillfully he works.

While the VSC production strains fully to realize the family drama at the core of True West, the play's broader theme resonates clearly. The decline of the "true" West is the death knell of something essentially American: its mythic virtues, its unspoiled frontier, its authentic nature. "There's nothing real down here, Lee," Austin says, to which his brother responds, "I can't save you from that."

Lee has already made his last stand. Like the character Kirk Douglas plays in the film Lonely Are the Brave - to whom Lee refers at one point - he's been defeated by the encroaching forces of modernity, manifest here in a suburban lifestyle to which Lee is ill-suited. Sure, he goes on stealing televisions, laying a kind of claim to the property of others, but he knows the plunder won't get him far. His retreat to his desert hermitage seems imminent.

True West is open to interpretation, as are other Shepard works. The play's conceptual elasticity exacts a cost in terms of execution, however, and in this case those difficulties may be exacerbated by the typical pitfalls of an opening-night performance. Shepard has described his work as being concerned more with creating moods than with cleaving tightly to linear plots. While his plays move forward through a series of conflicts and complications, characters are also left to rattle around in the rhetorical "space" of the scene a bit longer than is typical in more conventional works.

As a result, pacing can flag, as it does here and there in the VSC production, particularly early on when the fraternal bond between Lee and Austin is at its weakest. While a degree of emotional distance is to be expected between brothers whose lives have followed such different courses, initially they do not come across convincingly as family members, even estranged ones. Later, when doors to their shared past have been kicked open, the men begin to convey a palpable connection to one another.

That turning point appears midway through the play. In the first scene following the intermission, we learn that, over a round of golf, film producer Saul Kimmer (Adam Cunningham), whom Austin has been courting with a script idea, has decided instead to take on a project Lee has pitched him - pushing Austin's script to the back burner. Suddenly, real stakes emerge. Austin tells Lee that his deal with Saul was his one clear shot at success. Lee, for his part, sees the deal with Saul as an opportunity to get the "old man" out of the poor house. Austin and Lee square off on both counts - sibling rivalry over a screenplay sale, and divergent views on how much sympathy and support their errant father deserves.

These conflicts ignite something more closely resembling family dysfunction, and the interplay between Lee and Austin becomes more complex. The scenes that follow include some of the best acting in the show, enhanced by Paul Ugalde's fight choreography, but the playwright's tolerance for loosely structured plots sometimes detracts from the kinetic energy. Still, some reversals add irony and humor to the action, such as when Austin starts boozing in the manner of his brother. Rising to a dare from Lee, he goes on a toaster-robbing rampage through his mother's neighborhood - then proceeds to make about a dozen pieces of toast simultaneously.

Not even the soothing aroma of toast can make Lee and Austin put down their dukes and work out their differences reasonably. When Mom, played by Ruth Wallman, returns home early from an Alaska tour, she catches her boys in the midst of making a first-rate mess. For the first few beats following her entrance, Wallman's Mom almost seems to have wandered into the wrong play. Her muted response to the condition of her home strikes an absurdist note, reminiscent of Shepard's earliest plays. Mom's choice not to acknowledge the plainly evident destruction, however, jibes with the play's theme of a landscape altered beyond recognition. And the levity she brings to the moment is welcome in the aftermath of so much shoving and shouting. Wallman carries the scene with confidence and quirky charm.

But Mom doesn't hang around long, and her departure leaves us with two brothers still locked in territorial battle. The turf they're fighting over has changed in the course of the play. Lee and Austin now stand, like Beckett's characters in Waiting for Godot, on a tract of land lost on the margins of the map. The West has vanished. Only the frontier of family memory remains. It's a wild trail to ride, but, in the VSC production, it's a journey worth a little saddle soreness.

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About The Author

Erik Esckilsen

Erik Esckilsen

Erik Eskilsen is a freelance writer and Champlain College instructor. He lives in Burlington with his wife and twin daughters, and their dog.


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