Crowded out West
Sam Shepard does sibling rivalry well in Court Theatre’s True West
Court Theatre is a Chico institution, bringing four plays to the Chico State campus in as many weeks, for the past 38 summers. It is the only true repertory program in Chico, utilizing a handful of performers to fill the roles in all four shows; this means that, while performing one week, actors and crew are simultaneously rehearsing the next show(s). It is the best kind of training for students intent on a career in professional theater because this format mimics the way many regional theaters and touring companies work. In addition, the cast and crew get to work with guest directors and choreographers, who often have impressive credentials.
True West, the Sam Shepard play about the rivalry between two brothers, is the second show in this summer’s season. Directed by guest director Lani Harris, the play is a character study that examines the relationship between Austin, a screenwriter, played by Bryan Zoppi, and his older brother Lee, played by Michael Biggs. Set in the kitchen of the home of the men’s mother (played by Alexis Morann), near the desert east of Los Angeles.
Austin is house-sitting while their mother is in Alaska, and there he is confronted by his brother, who proceeds to bully his way into staying at the house and using Austin’s car. In addition, the screenplay which Austin is pitching to his connection in Hollywood (Marcus Sams) somehow gets taken over by the pushy con-man tactics of Lee, and the brothers find themselves forced to cooperate in the creation of a story that will make or break both their lives. In the process, the conflict between the brothers creates a heated situation in which their roles as successful family man and nomadic drifter are somehow reversed, and each man finds himself admitting that he had somehow always wished he were in the other’s shoes.
Shepard is a master of creating a sense of place, and the crew at Court Theatre does an excellent job of providing the players with a realistic, well-designed set upon which to act out their drama. The famous “toaster scene,” in which Austin fills the kitchen with stolen toasters to prove a point to Lee about his ability to do whatever his brother is capable of, is a well-executed—complete working outlets—as well as a nicely timed bit in which the toast popping up perfectly punctuates the dialogue between the brothers.
The theater-in-the-round design of Wismer Theatre serves the production well. This is the most challenging arrangement for performers, and designers both, as the action must take into account viewers on all sides. This production does a good job of rising to the challenge, although the flavor of the play itself seemed a little underdone. The ingredients are there; maybe it just needs to simmer a little more for the production to realize its full potential.
The problem: The actors never really seemed to sink their teeth into the roles given them. I kept waiting for the brothers to let the raw, visceral quality of the battle engulf them, but the acting seemed to always float on the surface of what was intended. There were a few nice moments, however. A couple of scenes into the second act, Austin gets drunk following the disappointing news that the producer has dropped his project in favor of the story proposed by his brother. Lee is painstakingly trying to type up his story, and tells Austin to take a hike and stop breaking his concentration. Austin replies, drunkenly, “I’m finally enjoying your company, after all these years, and you want me to leave?” The audience has a good laugh, as the action segues into a nice dialogue with the brothers sitting back to back on the island counter in the center of the kitchen, passing a bottle of whiskey back and forth.
I saw the play opening night. By the end of the week, the players may well have settled more solidly into their characters. It is a good story; well worth checking out.