‘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

What if Ibsen’s Nora returned

Sandra Marquez (Nora) and Yasen Payankov (Torvald) in A Doll's House Part 2 at Stepponwolf Theatre. (Photos by Michael Brosilow)
Sandra Marquez (Nora) and Yasen Payankov (Torvald) in A Doll’s House Part 2 at Stepponwolf Theatre. (Photos by Michael Brosilow)

3 1/2 stars

The back story is necessary to really understand playwright Lucas Hnath’s witty “A Doll’s House, Part 2, now at Steppenwolf Theatre. Otherwise audiences might sympathize with Hnath’s portrayal of the people Nora left behind when she slammed the door on her conventional, egotistical banker husband and their three children.

When Henrik Ibsen, a Norwegian playwright known for digging below society’s conventions to expose them for what they really are, published “A Doll’s House” in1879 he defied accepted familial and economic norms of the day.

He shocked a society that placed women in subservient roles to men. In many households, women were expected to be ornamental and needy and they had to have their husband’s or father’s signatures and OKs on legal documents.

Hnath, adept at penning plays that are both comedic and tense, (think Isaac’s Eye), takes on the “Doll’s House” iconic feminist heroine to ask how did she fare 15 years after she left her husband Torvald’s household and his demeaning view of her so she could be free to define herself.

Portrayed with gumption and defiance by Steppenwolf ensemble member Sandra Marquez, an extravagantly clothed Nora first challenges her old nanny, Anne Marie, to guess why she looks rich.

Played to perfection by Chicago veteran Barbara E. Robertson as the angry care-giver who stayed on to raise Nora’s three children, Anne Marie guesses traditional women tasks and skills.Read More

‘Curious Incident’ offers important themes

 

SOMEWHAT RECOMMENDED

Cast of Curious Incident of the dog in the nighttime at Steppenwolf Theatre's Young Adult Program.
Cast of Curious Incident of the dog in the nighttime at Steppenwolf Theatre’s Young Adult Program.

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” follows the adventures of Christopher (Terry Bell) who is a fourteen year old boy with an undefined sensory processing disorder (like autism) who is also a kind of math savant.

While he has advanced mental abilities on one hand, he also has limited interpersonal skills which manifest in his aversion to personal contact, his inability to tell a lie, and his propensity to take everything he hears literally.

For instance, he is confused by most idiomatic phrases and metaphors. When his test proctor asks, “Are you ready to roll” Christopher simply looks bewildered.

Intrigued by the mystery of the obviously intentional death of his neighbor’s dog, the young man sets out to find the perpetrator of the act. That leads him to places he has never been. It confronts him with unimagined truths while being forced to manage and overcome some of his own personal challenges.

This is less of a whodunit and more of a why’d-you-do-it that forces Christopher and us to ponder themes of death, infidelity, and betrayal. In the end there is not so much of a resolution as an open ended series of unanswered, perhaps thought provoking questions.

The strength of the play is providing a glimpse into an alternate state of being.

Actor Terry Bell gave an excellent, well=balanced performance as Christopher. It would be easy to overplay this role but his portrayal is sympathetic and sensitive.

This play by Simon Stephens based on the novel by Mark Haddon and directed by Jonathan Berry, is very much about Christopher and told from his point-of-view.Read More

A look at the coming Chicago theater season: Part Two

 

Downtown Chicago has a slew of good shows scheduled for the 2018-2019 theater season but don’t miss out on the shows that are likely to be Jeff Award Winners in the city’s neighborhoods and suburbs.

Our next peek at what will be playing checks on the Near North/Lincoln Park neighborhoods including the multi-theater venues of the Ruth Page Center and Greenhouse Center. Some theaters in the area have not published their season yet so stand by for more info.

Steppenwolf is in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. (Steppenwolf photo)
Steppenwolf is in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. (Steppenwolf photo)

A Red Orchid Theatre

The theatre, 1531 N. Wells St., starts the fall with “Small Mouth Sounds” Oct. 18 then goes into winter with “Fullfillment Cente Jan. 31 and into spring with “The Killing Game” May 2. For tickets and more information visit Red Orchid and call (312) 943-8722.

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Taking on a roommate can be life changing

RECOMMENDED

Sandra Marquez (Sharon) l, and Ora Jones (Robyn) in The Roommate st Steppenwolf (Photos by Michael Brosilow)
Sandra Marquez (Sharon) l, and Ora Jones (Robyn) in The Roommate st Steppenwolf (Photos by Michael Brosilow)

What can happen when a lonely, middle-aged woman takes in a roommate for companionship and to share expenses?

In playwright Jen Silverman’s “The Roommate,” now at Steppenwolf Theatre, the answers are surprising and problematic.

Adeptly directed by Phylicia Rashad to achieve the highest impact possible during the 90 minute show, “The Roommate” transforms Sharon, an uptight, judgmental, highly moral, 50-something, empty-nester into an amoral woman willing to try anything.

The setting, perfectly depicted by scenic designer John Lacovelli, is Sharon’s kitchen in her large, old Iowa City home.

The catalyst for change is Robyn, another 50-something empty-nester from the Bronx, who, in photography terms, turns out to be the negative of Sharon.

Read More

Nature is perfect in imperfection according to Tchaikovsky but show about him is perfect

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Hershey Felder in his one-man show 'Our Great Tchaikovsky' at the upstairs Steppenwolf Theatre through May 13, 2018. Photos by Hershey Felder Presents.
Hershey Felder in his one-man show ‘Our Great Tchaikovsky’ at the upstairs Steppenwolf Theatre through May 13, 2018. Photos by Hershey Felder Presents.

Can people display numerous professions, some of which merge into one outstanding career, producing the most wonderful theatrical productions?

Not many. But there is one person who is currently in Chicago, pianist, actor, playwright, composer, producer and director Hershey Felder. He  is performing his fabulous play,‘Our Great Tchaikovsky’ upstairs in the Steppenwolf Theatre.

After creating highly regarded stage productions about Gershwin, Chopin, Beethoven, Bernstein, Berlin and others, Felder is now garnering some of his best reviews for ‘Our Great Tchaikovsky.’

Beautifully directed by Trevor Hay, the play is a one-man performance in which Felder shares Tchaikovsky’s life through his own acting, writing, and musical talents.

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Global politics and power skewered in new farce

 

RECOMMENDED

Cast of Doppelganger at Steppenwolf. Photos by Michael Brosilow.
Cast of Doppelganger at Steppenwolf. Photos by Michael Brosilow.

You know when you see a stage set with multiple doors that the play will likely be a farce. Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s set of ‘Doppelgänger,’ a world premiere with the sub title of ‘an international farce,’ has all the elements needed to keep audiences  laughing, including 11 doors and another entrance.

Erlbach’s presentation of global political, economic and social issues of today works superbly well as a farce.

Clever lines come so quickly and author Matthew-Lee Erlbach’s obvious love of words so mesh in rhymes and tongue twisters that the first two hours speed by quickly.

No stereotype is spared from a hawkish general and a skinny, uptight  female British politician to an exiled African nation’s former brutal president, a bisexual Arab prince and a buxom, Brazilian money launderer.

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