True West

By staff July 18, 2008


It’s time for a no-holds-barred showdown with the Banyan’s True West.


By Kay Kipling


There’s certainly something cathartic as well as comedic about watching Sam Shepard’s True West, now onstage at the Cook Theatre in a Banyan Theater Company production. As we watch the tension between two brothers build until they eventually slug it out, pretty much destroying their mother’s kitchen in the process, there’s a sense of relief in knowing that they’re tearing apart their lives so we don’t have to do the same with ours.

Twenty-some years after this play debuted, it’s still contemporary in tone, despite the dial telephone and typewriter props. Austin (Eric Hissom) is, at first glance, a nerdy hopeful screenwriter, working away at a script he’s been pitching for months to a Hollywood producer (J Bloomrosen). He’s staying at his mother’s home east of Los Angeles while she’s on a trip to Alaska, diligently watering her plants and cleaning the kitchen counters. But from the outset there’s a definite sense of foreboding as Austin’s brother, Lee (R. Ward Duffy), a rough guy just blown in from the Mojave Desert like a manic tumbleweed, shows up and inserts his baleful presence into Austin’s carefully ordered world. Soon Lee has gambled his way into getting his own script made, by Austin’s producer, and these Cain/Abel brothers are locked in a battle that ultimately leads to a High Noon confrontation, playing all along to our ties to our Western roots and/or lack of a “real” West today.

Directed by Chris Dolman, this True West is well cast in the leads, especially as the tables turn and Lee attempts to change his life for the better (no more boosting other people’s television sets) while Austin begins to swig liquor and, in one of the play’s best scenes, lines up a set of toasters he’s stolen just to prove he can do it and starts buttering away. Their climactic fight scene is certainly believable, as is Lee’s animal frustration when a telephone call doesn’t go his way and he explodes into physical fury.

Bloomrosen is rather low-key for a producer type; one might expect more slick energy. In a brief appearance toward the end of the play, Nina Hughes wears the right look of befuddlement as Austin and Lee’s mother, too dazed by the direction her life has taken to fully comprehend what she sees.

But the show belongs, properly, of course, to Hissom, Duffy and Shepard, whose spare dialogue and precise timing still crackle after all these years. True West continues through Aug, 3; for tickets call 552-1032 or go to
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