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True West @ St Louis Actors’ Studio

In the second act of True West, Austin tells his brother Lee, “Saul thinks we’re the
same person.” Saul is not the only person who thinks they’re the same person. It’s become
a cliché in critical comments about Sam Shepard’s great play that Austin and Lee are really
two sides of the same person. You’re not likely to think that when you first meet them. Austin,
Ivy-League educated, sits at a typewriter, surrounded by reference books, working on
a screenplay he’s writing. He’s casually but neatly dressed. He speaks mildly and thoughtfully.
Lee, in dirty plaid pants and striped vest, pulls beer after beer out of the refrigerator.
His speech is crude, abrupt, sometimes threatening. Before long, Lee shows up with a TV set he’s
stolen from a neighboring house. By the second act, Lee is the screenwriter, and Austin is
bringing in toasters stolen from the neighbors’ houses, lots of toasters. Their roles have
reversed. But not totally. Lee steals because it’s his profession – or one of them, anyway.
Austin steals because Lee dares him to do it. Frustrated when trying to write his screenplay,
Lee is still a violent person, taking out his frustration on Austin’s typewriter with
a golf club. From the looks of the machine after Lee finishes, St. Louis Actors’ Studio
has to find a new manual Underwood for every performance. Lee and Austin are two people.
I don’t think you need to see Shepard exploring one person in two characters. You do see him
exploring the similarities and differences in two brothers who share the same DNA. And
you see him creating rich and fascinating drama out of that exploration and out of the
tension created when the two of them explore their similarities and differences. Each reports
on his visit with the source of that DNA, their father, who long ago abandoned the family
and lives out in the Southern California desert, disheveled and alcoholic, but surviving. Is
he the true west, the final wreck of those myths of the open frontier and its endless
promise, myths that have embedded themselves in the American culture and helped make it
what it is, myths that fascinate Shepard in much of his work. Or is Austin the true west,
the screenwriter creating those myths, not just of the West but of the promise in all
the glamour that flows out of the Dream Factories. Or is Lee the true west, not just the free
man traveling the open road to the golden state. He’s also the con man who promises
the big deal. Somewhere Lee has learned how to talk to Austin’s agent Saul when the agent
comes to see the writer and to persuade Saul to take on the story Lee spins for him. Somewhere,
Lee learned to play golf so well that he beats Saul in a bet and wins Saul’s agreement not
only to produce his story but to drop Austin’s script and hire Austin to write Lee’s screenplay.
Director William Whitaker injects enormous energy into this production and a shrewd and
expansive use of the stage. And he and the cast get their laughs. The laughs come as
a frequent surprise in this often tensely threatening play. It takes place in the kitchen
of the mother of Austin and Lee, on the edge of the desert forty miles east of Los Angeles,
where Austin is housesitting for their mother while she’s on a cruise to Alaska, watering
her plants and finishing a screenplay in undisturbed isolation. Patrick Huber, with an assist from
Theatremarine Productions, creates the perfect suburban kitchen with cabinets that turquoise
color ubiquitous in mid-century middle America. William Humphrey’s Austin evolves from accommodating
Lee’s unexpected and unwelcome visit to resisting his demands to full-blown war. As Lee, Isaiah
DiLorenzo has tremendous range from physical threats and violence to canny con moves to
boyish guilt when their mother unexpectedly returns to the kitchen he and Austin have
destroyed. Susan Kopp’s Mom, astounded and dismayed, leaves for a motel. William Roth’s
Saul the agent becomes putty in Lee’s hands, confident that his gut reaction in preferring
Lee’s script to Austin’s can’t go wrong. The sound design by director Whitaker and Jeff
Roberts fills brief scene breaks with grand old country and Western classics and with
coyotes howling as the brothers face each other in the final standoff. Andrea Robb designed
the cleverly appropriate costumes and Steve Miller the lights. Shaun Sheley choreographed
the fights, and Jason Contini was the videographer. True West and its two brothers have become
classics of the American theatre.

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