It’s one of the first things you learn in criticism–all choices are taken as intentional. That strange blouse, the idiosyncratic set, those lights, the casting, all of it falls under Rule Number One: If you see it, they meant it. Generally, you can trust theater companies to tell you if they didn’t.
Which is why someone at Open Door Theater has to answer as much for the fiendish timing of this production of Sam Shepard’s True West as they do for its contents.
It’s been only a handful of days since many of us returned from grappling with ornery relatives we rarely see in distant parts of the country. After harrowing journeys and encounters, we get back, take a break, relax and settle into our theater seats for a comedy to start off the new year.
Whereupon Open Door promptly serves up a play. About grappling. With an ornery, rarely seen relative. In a distant part of the country.
And don’t bother saying the scheduling for this play–still basically point-blank range to the holidays–wasn’t deliberate. Warn the unwary instead: At this proximity to our own recent relative dramas, family flashbacks are guaranteed.
All right: all joking aside, True West is a funny play, both in script and this particular production. But still, for a work which takes place in California, there sure is an awful lot of the South to it. It’s actually in the script, and not in some directorial miscalculation–particularly since it’s no miscalculation at all. Shepard’s play almost has to hit a particular nerve for all those one generation removed–or less–from a profoundly different culture, time or place. Sound familiar?
For this area, that probably includes a greater number of audience members than elsewhere. Folks whose parents farmed and saved so they could go on off to college; people who’s hometown simply vanished–along with the world in which it lived–in the four (or five or six) short years it took to get their degree.
Everyone from here pretty much knows how easy it is to walk down any Southern street, turn a corner, and suddenly find yourself between 30 to 40 years Back Thataway. Most of us know just how comfortable we feel when that happens. We also know exactly how long it takes us to find our way back.
The uncomfortable truth between the jokes in Shepard’s dark little comedy is this: Those schisms aren’t limited to the corners of Lindsey and Vance, or Davie and Person. They’re also visible in the blindside, sudden intersections between family members. Particularly ones you don’t see that often, and haven’t seen in ages. Happy holidays.
The South only thinks it’s cornered the market in such schisms. Actually, they wait for us all, when we actually dare to get back together with kin. No wonder it’s so crowded in those reunion rooms: the worlds and times we live in come along as well, and each person lives in a different one. They brush up against each other. If we’re extremely lucky. If not, they just collide.
From the start, older brother Lee (Michael Babbitt) is clearly itching for a fight with the younger, college educated Austin (Kevin Poole). Ten years separate the two, a gloss this production doesn’t always successfully convey. Still, it’s clear enough that the brothers are a world apart.
When we catch up with them Lee’s been drifting for awhile, living in the desert, making money through pit bull fights and casual theft. Austin’s a few years out of an unnamed Ivy League school, a relatively successful writer, with a wife, kids, home–and prospects for busting through to the big time with a film script he’s been working on.
One key to True West is the mutual envy of the two. Lee, for all his forced bravado, fairly salivates for some of the comfort–and all of the respect–he believes Austin’s work affords him. There’d be no need to ridicule it if he didn’t. But Austin just as secretly lusts after the wild side his brother represents; the stark freedom of the desert, the amorality of a life built on nothing but the survival of the fittest.
Which is pretty ridiculous when you consider just how big a nebbish Austin is, particularly in this production. Director Benjamin Beecher and actor Poole’s intentionally testosterone-deficient reading of Austin is comic, and at times one stop shy of ludicrous. We actually wonder how he survived a childhood with Lee, until we see his cool-as-a-cucumber skills at assessing threats. Still, the production takes things too far when Austin remains relatively frictionless, even while Lee steals a screenwriting gig out from under him. Austin’s relatively total lack of ego also becomes an annoying (and nearly fictive) element beyond a point. Nowhere do we ever get the sense that he’s ever really asking for it, anywhere along the way, in these encounters. Just a little self-superiority would gratifyingly fund the conflict between the two. As it stands, at times the play appears to be directed from Austin’s point of view.
Babbitt convincingly bullies his way through the role of Lee, a role which clearly plays to strengths we’ve seen from him before.
The very slow burn develops gratifyingly enough through act one, but things plateau a bit when roles reverse in act two. One thing the production lacks at times is a sense of just how far both become fish out of water when each tries to walk in the other’s shoes. Of course, they both display just how inept they are at doing so, before Mom (Diane Gilboa) comes back to see how much worse for the wear her house is because of it. Both Gilboa and Jeff Buschmann as Saul, the film producer, come off relatively affectless; human-sized characters in a play ostensibly about the clash of two titans.
But when one titan seems significantly larger than the other, or in the wrong, the orientation of the whole play comes into question. If Austin were a little less a saint, this production of True West would be a lot more interesting.