By Sam Shepard
Directed by James Yost
Produced by Shattered Globe Theatre
Playing at Theater Wit, Chicago
“What they don’t know is that each one of ’em is afraid, see. Each one separately thinks that he’s the only one that’s afraid. And they keep ridin’ like that straight into the night. Not knowing. And the one who’s chasin’ doesn’t know where the other one is taking him. And the one who’s being chased doesn’t know where he’s going.”
Real Commercial—Full ‘a Suspense—True-to-Life Stuff.
A popular Cherokee parable tells of two wolves battling inside the breast of man. There is the good wolf that is humble, peaceful, generous, and loving; and there is the evil wolf that is proud, violent, selfish, and full of hate. Which one survives the battle, the parable tells us, is the one we choose to feed.
One finds a similar battle taking place in the Los Angeles suburb of Sam Shepard’s True West, where two estranged brothers confront the worst of themselves in the other in a sibling rivalry whose stakes are less about who’s father’s favorite than about whose idea of masculinity is “true-to-life.” Featuring a powerhouse performance by Joseph Wiens (as Lee), Shattered Globe’s production of Shepard’s iconic masterpiece is one I imagine many will find thrillingly entertaining.
It’s the middle of the night when older brother Lee (Joseph Wiens), like a ragged wolf strayed from the desert, wanders into his mother’s suburban home to find his estranged, house-sitting brother Austin (Kevin Viol) hunched at his typewriter by candlelight. The silence that hangs in the kitchen, with its circa-70s décor, parquet floor, and potted houseplants, is already palpable with the conflict between these two seemingly different men. Dressed in white sneakers, blue jeans, and a button-up sweater, the bespectacled, ivy-leaguer Austin is a family-man who aspires to be a screenwriter. Lee, on the other hand, looks as though he’s just made a dumpster dive after trekking out from the desert — from where, in fact, he has just come: sockless and mysteriously adorned in a brown trench coat, scuffed, black dress shoes, black slacks, and a holey, white t-shirt, Lee is the son who followed his father’s dissipated life into the wilderness, the son who chose thievery over legitimacy, the son who chose restless solitude over respectable civility.
And yet, as different and as self-assured as these men seem to be, we soon learn of a mutual jealousy between them, a jealousy that stems from each’s current dissatisfaction with his life and a curiosity with the what-might-have-been of the other side. These and other revelations pour forth after Lee supplants Austin as the prospective screenwriter-to-be by slickly insinuating himself into the good favor of Austin’s potential script producer Saul (Rob Frankel), an equally cool and slick Hollywood man-of-business. It seems Lee has some good ideas of his own for a commercial Hollywood blockbuster, a true story of sorts about the “real west.” The only catch is Lee can’t write — and Austin will be damned if he’s going to help him now.
With his Hollywood hopes crushed, Austin quickly devolves into a drunken, rambling parody of Lee — who himself now pecks frustratingly at the typewriter, an apish caricature of Austin. How long can the tension between these two brothers escalate before the binding ties of family snap over the abyss of primal resentment? What will Mom (Rebecca Jordan) say when she gets home to witness the mess her sons have made of her home? The end is as surprising and violent as the course of the brothers’ degeneration.
Directed by James Yost, Shattered Globe’s True West is an entertaining and at times absurdly funny drama that showcases the gritty, physical acting that people claim as the hallmark of Chicago theatre. Even with the production’s flaws, Shepard’s writing comes through sharp and potent, at every moment keeping you buzzing with tense anticipation and electrifying moments of full-blown conflict, all the while pulling you continually deeper on its dark and twisted descent into the modern, male id.
As far as the acting goes, the physically imposing Joseph Wiens (Lee) virtually carries the play on his shoulders, delighting with a performance that is unpredictable and honest. Greg Pinsoneault’s runway stage design brings the play’s action up-close to the audience, and in Wiens’ eyes one sees truthfully all of Lee’s rage and insecurity.
Rob Frankel, as Saul, skims the line of parody with his character’s mannerisms, but Shepard’s writing supports him and he himself manages to fully embody the affectations for a believable and fun performance. Rebecca Jordan, as Mom, is a bit overly-theatrical in her own way, too, but as the capstone to understanding Shepard’s vision she brings the play together well.
Kevin Viol’s Austin, on the other hand, was a weak link for me in an otherwise exceptional production. I simply never believed him. From the moment he first speaks, to his stumbling and rambling spectacle of drunkenness, to his manically violent end, his performance struck me as subtly affected and utterly controlled — nothing natural arose from a sense of his character, but rather it appeared Viol was playing some idea of who he thought Austin should be. A pivotal moment for me was in the first act, when Saul lauds Austin’s script outline and practically promises that he will see it made into a movie — a life-changing proclamation that meets a lukewarm and vague reception. Inexplicable. In that moment, my heart sank with a turgid repulsion and my soul contorted like plastic in the vice of fallacy. Whether on account of Viol’s unclear character-motivations or Yost’s direction, many moments such as this one seemed to obscure the play’s focus and let its energy wander — which, while not ruining the play, did take me out of a it for periods.
Nevertheless, Shepard’s enthralling storytelling and Wiens’ captivating performance make Shattered Globe’s production of True West one well worth seeing. Like watching in slow motion a vicious battle between two starving wolves, horror and awe of their destructive grace grip you and compel you to watch on.
Reviewed on 11 September 2016.
Playing at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. Tickets are $35 for General Admission, with $20 for “Under 30,” $15 Students, $28 Seniors, and $15 Industry (on Thursdays). For tickets and information, call or visit the Theater Wit box office at 773-975-8150, or visit TheaterWit.org. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through October 22 (Note: There will be an added 3:00 p.m. performance on Saturday, October 22). Running time is 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission.