True West, by Sam Shepard. Directed by Patrick White. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"Who wants to eat a bite off a plate with the state of Idaho on it?"
Who wants to see a play by Sam Shepard ever again? That's the real question. "True West," which I have now seen for the fifth time in its current production at the Ghent Playhouse, is perhaps the dopiest play ever written. I have been trying to understand what it is the playwright wants me to know and understand since 1980. Nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1983, revived several times, awarded Tony Statuettes, played by major actors of our time, I just don't get it. What does Shepard think we need to know?
We have two estranged brothers suddenly inhabiting their mother's home near Hollywood while she is experimenting with life in Alaska. We have a screen-writer unable to complete a treatment for a patient producer. We have a violent vagrant whose instincts turn violet but whose ultimate treatment with an extension cord produces little of anything useful. We have a mother whose only concern upon discovering the almost total destruction of her home and her beloved plants decides she needs to put her hat back on and move to a motel. Nowhere do we have a sympathetic character, someone to identify with or empathize with. Nowhere do we have even a simple dynamic that might make us think there is someone worth saving. Nowhere do we find anything of absolute value, unless it is the few remaining golf clubs. I just don't get it.
The last time I saw this play at the Williamstown Theatre Festival back in 2009 some thought was given to how the presence of the mother could alter the play and Debra Jo Rupp almost managed to do that. In this production Stephanie Sloane has too little to work with to make a difference and the play dies a slow and painful death as an almost too idiotic Marie Wilson-type character passes through the space that was once her home with a beatific smile and an even dopier attitude than has been on display in the previous hour or so.
To be sure some very good, very strong performances highlight this miserable little play which has been directed as well as I've ever seen it done by Patrick White whose past credits prove a highly creditable career. From the three photos sent to me for use in this review it is quite clear that the actor playing Lee, the violent brother, is the clear favorite of the company. Nathaniel Drake plays Lee and there is an excellent, finely honed edge to his performance. His most threatening moments always come from his sweetest places. He is a permanent surprise and even his last scene leaves us on tenterhooks. There is some very good work being done by this actor in this role.
Kevin Kilb as his brother Austin also works from very deep in the character's psyche. I have never been able to fathom Austin's life-altering decisions before now and I still can't. Kilb exhibits a genuine sweetness sprinkled with a grand portion of suspicion. He is the character we should like, should root for, but somehow as written that is almost impossible. Nothing Kilb does makes this any easier.
Rob Weber plays Saul Kimmer the film producer whose behavior triggers the worst of sibling rivalry in the brothers. He does what the role asks of him and happily, I suspect, leaves the stage to the other three.
The set, which must need to be rebuilt after every performance, is by Sam Reilly and works perfectly for the show. He is also the dresser for this production which must take no time as there are no costume changes which makes it difficult to understand the passing of time, if there is such a thing which there may not be as this play is as close to a parable as you can get. Joanne Maurer's costumes suit their characters. Isabel Filkins does some very effective lighting.
With so much talent involved there is only one problem with the play and that is the play itself. In spite of its long history I feel that there is really very little there. There are some excellent laughs and a few chills and the occasional rush of human emotion but when you add it all up there is very little to hold on to, or respect, or ignite interest or emotional reactions. Dopey is what Dopey does and in this play Sam Shepard disappoints disastrously. This is the dopiest play I've seen.
Kevin Kilb (background), Nathaniel Drake; photo: Adam Wilson-Hwang
Nathaniel Drake and Kevin Kilb (background); photo: Adam Wilson-Hwang
Kevin Kilb (foreground), Nathaniel Drake; photo: Adam Wilson-Hwang
True West plays at the Ghent Playhouse, Route 66, Ghent, NY through June 4. For information and tickets go to their website at ghentplayhouse.org or call for tickets at 1-800-838-3006.