True West review – Sam Shepard’s fraternal face-off gains new resonance

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The Guardian

Sam Shepard’s story of two warring brothers was first produced in a celebrated production by the Chicago-based Steppenwolf company in 1982. Although Shepard said that his drama of “double nature” was not intended to be metaphorical, it is difficult not to read into Steppenwolf’s new production the divisions in the US today, heightened during the Donald Trump presidency.

Conflicting desires coexist in Austin (Jon Michael Hill), an Ivy League graduate and Hollywood screenwriter, and his brother Lee (Namir Smallwood), a drifter and crook who has recently returned from the Mojave desert. When Lee crashes into their mother’s California home where Austin is house-sitting, they come into direct and intensely physical confrontation.

At first this is presented as a choice between success in conventional terms or rebellion against conformity and the law. The two men seem to swap places when Lee’s hastily concocted film proposal for a western impresses visiting producer Kimmer (Randall Arney, who also directs). Kimmer’s ideal of the west as an image of wilderness and male freedom is woven through the play, with Austin later revealing his longing to take off into the desert, just as their father had.

Direct confrontation … Namir Smallwood and Jon Michael Hill. Photograph: Michael Brosilow

While the production initially lacks a sense of real menace, the comedy of Austin’s drinking binge and improbable thieving spree gives way to a more aggressive tone as the intimidating Lee swings golf clubs wildly all around him. Despite physically seamless performances, the power of this queasy combination of humour and violence has diminished through familiarity, whether from the work of Quentin Tarantino and Martin McDonagh or the influence of Shepard himself.

The casting of African American actors Hill and Smallwood highlights the political association between the myth of the west and white America. An understated awareness of race is threaded throughout, such as in Kimmer’s awkward surprise that Lee is a good golfer.

Equally telling is the late appearance of their mother (Ora Jones). Coolly surveying the chaotic scene, she asks them to take their brawl outside. Her carefully controlled detachment suggests a woman who has long ago given up any attempt to intervene in this spiral of male destructiveness.

July 15, 2022 at 05:06PM Helen Meany

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