The way-out West

Sam Shepard’s darkly comic masterpiece

A war of word-making between brothers Lee (Fred Stuart, standing) and Austin (Joe Hilsee).

A war of word-making between brothers Lee (Fred Stuart, standing) and Austin (Joe Hilsee).

Photo by brittany waterstradt

True West shows Thursday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m., through Feb. 28 at the Blue Room.
Tickets: $15-$18 (Thursdays: pay-what-you can)
Blue Room Theatre
139 W. First St.

Of his Pulitzer Prize-nominated True West, American playwright Sam Shepard has said, “I wanted to write a play about double nature, one that wouldn’t be symbolic or metaphorical or any of that stuff. I just wanted to give a taste of what it feels like to be two-sided. It’s a real thing, double nature. I think we’re split in a much more devastating way than psychology can ever reveal. It’s not so cute. Not some little thing we can get over. It’s something we’ve got to live with.”

Given the evidence on stage Friday night during the Blue Room Theatre’s production of the 1980 play, he succeeded in achieving his goal.

Set in present-day suburban Southern California, True West gives us a jagged—and occasionally hilarious—slice-of-life glimpse into the conflicted existences of two long-estranged brothers who unexpectedly reunite in their mother’s cozy suburban home when she is off on a sightseeing trip to Alaska. Joe Hilsee stars as semi-successful, typewriter-tapping screenwriter and family man Austin, and Fred Stuart plays his older brother Lee, a manic desert rat, home burglar, and Pabst-swilling drunkard.

The play begins with Lee’s unexpected intrusion into Austin’s quiet, candlelit work of polishing up a screenplay that he’s on the verge of selling to major movie producer Saul Kimmer (played by Jeremy Votava). Hilsee and Stuart—both very experienced and skilled theater veterans (each former artistic directors at the Blue Room) at the dawn of middle-age—are ideally paired as the diametrically opposed brothers. Austin’s initial conciliatory politeness is complemented by Lee’s brash, intimidating, belly-scratching, big-brother machismo.

Shepard is a master of employing realistic dialogue to illuminate his characters’ inner feelings and conflicts, and Hilsee and Stuart bring his lines to robust life. The expression of their conflict ranges from poignant to ridiculous, and the play’s dialectic rhythm, which surges from quiet argumentativeness to over-the-top, red-faced, nearly hysterical shouting matches, is by turns (and sometime simultaneously) hilarious and frightening, and illuminates their dysfunction.

The core of the brothers’ conflict is the difference between their compositional approaches: the writer’s use of creative craft and process to produce marketable synthetic drama, and the man of action’s visceral creation of genuine drama by the simple act of being himself. The genius of Shepard’s presentation of this conflict is that, through the examination of the writers’ process, the brothers eventually morph into their own opposites. Their transformation is catalyzed by the insertion of the sleazoid movie producer, who decides that Lee’s extemporaneously blurted out melodramatic story idea is more worthy of major financial backing than Austin’s carefully crafted contemporary love story.

Lee is suddenly responsible for writing his own story and is faced with the dismal realization that the craft of writing is much more challenging than the act of spouting off a vague but exciting drunken idea. And for Austin, the dissolution of his dream of finally getting his arduously crafted screenplay made into a major film sends him into his own hilarious role-reversal as a drunken but very “successful” house burglar obsessed with pilfering a certain, perhaps symbolic, countertop appliance.

As the brothers descend into increasingly dark comic madness, set designer Amber Miller’s cozy, meticulously designed kitchen setting—initially suffused with soft light and the bucolic sounds of chirping crickets and distantly barking dogs—is inundated with the increasingly chaotic detritus of drunken writing and thievery, until the floor is a virtual sea of beer cans, wadded paper, and broken furniture. It’s at this point that their mother (Rosemary Febbo) returns unexpectedly to find her home and family in apparently irreparable disarray. Her calm motherly voice of reason and seeming lack of concern for the cartoonishly brutal fight that ensues between her offspring sets up the perfect culmination to this finely and deliberately overwrought comedic drama.

With its brilliant script, extraordinary four-character cast, and masterful direction by Joyce Henderson, the Blue Room’s production of True West is community theater at its best. Well worth a trip to the true and way-out west of the title.