‘True West’ is true self

 

L o R Namir Smallwood (Lee) Francis Guinan (Saul) Jon Michael Hill (Austin) in True West at Steppenwolf. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
L o R Namir Smallwood (Lee) Francis Guinan (Saul) Jon Michael Hill (Austin) in True West at Steppenwolf. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

3 stars

Rivalry or jealousy between brothers is as old as Cain and Abel but that may not really be what is going on in Sam Shepard’s “True West” now on stage at Steppenwolf.

It is also not whether the role of Austin is played by Jon Michael Hill and that of Lee by Namir Smallwood in the current revival or that Gary Sinise was Hill opposite John Malkovich in the famous 1982 production.

More of a clue lies in the 2000 Broadway production when the two leads were played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and John c. Reilly who switched roles during the run and when director Matthew Warchus asked the Tony Committee to see Hoffman and Reilly as one.

Even though familiar with Shepard’s work, I thought “True West” would be another play expressing the deep, consumed-by-jealousy expressions found in sibling rivalry.

It’s not. What Shepard said, and is expressed on the Steppenwolf “True West” site is,

“I wanted to write a play about double nature, one that wouldn’t be symbolic or metaphorical or any of that stuff. I just wanted to give a taste of what it feels like to be two-sided. It’s a real thing, double nature. I think we’re split in a much more devastating way than psychology can ever reveal.”

L o R Jacqueline Williams (Mom), Jon Michael Hill (Austin) and Namir Smallwood (Lee) in True West at Steppenwolf. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
L o R Jacqueline Williams (Mom), Jon Michael Hill (Austin) and Namir Smallwood (Lee) in True West at Steppenwolf. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

Think about it. You will better understand what is happening when you watch Austin, the clean-cut, Ivy League brother and Lee, a street-smart, thief and wanderer, change character.

Austin has a wife and kids back home but is typing away on a computer so he can finish his screenplay draft while house-sitting his mother’s place east of Los Angeles in the California desert. Hollywood producer Saul Kimmer, originally played by Francis Guinan  who reprises his role for this production, is interested in the play so stops by to read it.

Lee, his brother whom he hasn’t seen in years, comes calling. Lee is manipulative. He thinks nothing of stealing from homes in whatever neighborhood he comes across including where his mother lives, or of drinking whatever is available in their bars,

Austin envies Lee’s carefree life. Lee, who likes the idea of turning out a screen play that can make enough money to afford a ranch, knows how to cut a deal with the producer to take a play Lee dreams up and has his brother type.

Act I sets the stage as Lee takes over. Act II turns menacingly violent and almost deadly. But comic relief comes when Mom, originally portrayed by Laurie Metcalf, now by Jacqueline Williams, returns from Alaska\ to find her house trashed and her boys fighting.

Maybe the play will have audiences thinking about their own double nature or that of people they know.

“True West” is at Steppenwolf, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, through Aug. 25, 2019. Running time: 2 hours, one intermission. For tickets and other information call (312) 335-1650 or visit Steppenwolf.

Jodie Jacobs

For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago

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