The veteran actor, television and film director, Sam Shepard, is equally known as a prolific playwright. Like the Okies from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Shepard’s many award – winning dramas focus on desperate people and their futile attempts to harness the American dream. Considered the last part in an unofficial trio of plays with Curse of the Starving Class and Buried Child being the first two, True West is deeply immersed in a sharp and stark meta – reality.
The show made its debut at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre in 1980, where Shepard was also the playwright in residence. Later, True West was revived by Chicago’s renowned Steppenwolf Theatre. The company’s production significantly boosted the careers of Gary Sinise and John Malkovich, both relatively unknown actors to that point. Then, with those leads in tow, the show eventually arrived on Broadway.
Under Leigh Ormsby’s tight direction, his fresh reading gives True West a dynamic, surreal and distinctly Australian air. By eschewing American accents altogether, the characters take on qualities not unlike the rough and tumble protagonists from films such as Animal Kingdom, Emerald City, Last Train to Freo, The Boys, and Erskineville Kings.
Played out over 100 minutes in a handful of linear, quick – moving rounds, at first sight Shepard’s play is deceptively simple. By throwing viewers immediately into the action, we learn that Austin is a struggling screenwriter on the cusp of artistic recognition and significant financial gain. Achingly close to negotiating a six – figure deal with a script he has been pitching for months, Austin is further stressed by house sitting for his mother while she is away in Alaska.
Meanwhile, his long – lost brother appears on the scene out of nowhere. Apparently living on the lam for the last five years, Lee could not be more physically, socially or emotionally opposite from his sibling. Like Felix and Oscar from Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, Austin is thin, bespectacled, nervous and neat. His polar mirror, Lee is solid, loud, slovenly and frequently abusive towards his brother.
That is not to say Austin is a constant, passive doormat to Lee’s aggressive manipulations. Seething with barely veiled rage, Austin takes revenge walking a more covert path. Slowly and surely, the character uses his intelligence to gain the upper hand.
True West also has moments of surprising humour. Without giving too much away, the play’s biggest plot twist forces the brothers together as a makeshift writing team. Lee’s anger takes on a hysterical comic edge as he bullies Austin into putting his clichéd visions to type.
Lee and Austin’s combined antics are reminiscent of Ron Hutchinson’s Moonlight and Magnolias (about Gone With The Wind’s infamous screenplay overhaul). In True West, as both brothers bounce off each other for inspiration, they drunkenly trash their mother’s house in the process.
Ending in a seesaw stalemate, there are suggestions that Lee and Austin are instead two halves of the same conflicted character. Such analysis may have influenced revolutionary films like Fight Club and Adaptation.
As Lee, Ryan Murphy is an original. He plays him as a loose cannon, exploding at the slightest provocation. Murphy’s performance appears so real at times, it is genuinely frightening. The young actor channels Marlon Brando from A Streetcar Named Desire, Robert De Niro from Cape Fear, and Jack Nicholson from The Shining all rolled into one.
Darcy Witsed’s Austin is like John Turturro’s Barton Fink (from the Coen Brothers’ motion picture classic of the same name). It is easy to identify with his pain, mounting frustration and confusion.
Rounding out True West’s quartet of characters, Edward Valent is appropriately slimy and opportunist as Austin’s Hollywood agent, Saul Kimmer. Gail Bradley, as the brothers’ befuddled mother, provides a significant coda to the play’s dramatic jigsaw.
Albert Park’s Gasworks Park is the perfect venue for this kind of theatre. Thanks to confined studio space; the audience is at one with the story.
In this team’s hands, True West was a truly visceral and electrifying experience.