Things fall apart;
the centre cannot hold.
W.B. Yeats “The Second Coming”
By the mid 1970’s, Sam Shepard had begun to focus his play-writing skills more on story telling, character and family dynamics. Yet he never thoroughly abandoned his sense of the absurd and his formidable ability to fill his narratives with poetic leaps; for he was now able to grace his more grounded tales with his uniquely personal vision. True West first appeared in 1980 and is considered the last of his “Family Trilogy.” The New York Post called the play “Shepard’s masterwork.” The Seattle Rep and director Braden Abraham have staged a knockout production of the show to ring in the New Year for Seattle.
Scenic Designer Marcus Doshi has constructed a gorgeous set showing the interior living room and kitchen of a suburban home built some 40 miles east of L.A. and the San Gabriel mountains that loom over the structure right outside its windows. The condition of the house will directly reflect the emotional status of its residents as the play progresses. At rise we meet two very different men on stage. Austin (Zachary Ray Sherman) is at the kitchen table, intensely jotting lines into his notebook, while Lee (Kevin Anderson) slouches about the rooms, drinking one can of beer after another, idly kibitzing as Austin works. Austin is so tightly wound he seems ready to implode at any moment. He is tasked with house sitting his mother’s home. Lee has just come off the road, he had been living on his own in the Mojave Desert for some time. He has a Stanley Kowalski like aura, supremely self-assured and nonchalant, yet barely masking darker and more violent elements ever so near his surface. In the play’s opening scene the two seem so completely dissimilar that it is a bit of a shock to learn they are in fact brothers.
Brothers they are, and in its series of short scenes the play explores the fascinating dynamics of their relationship. The father is long gone from the scene, battling his own demons elsewhere. Austin becomes distraught when Lee even brings their dad up, while Lee seems to have only a mild curiosity about how successfully their father is battling his alcoholism. Their mother is off visiting Alaska and Austin’s family is somewhere “up north,” so the two are involved in an unsettling reunion on their own. Going a bit stir crazy, Lee wants Austin to give him his car keys so he can go out into the “sweet suburban silence” and explore the homes of “prominent people.” He will return with a stolen television. Austin is reluctant to give up the keys, which seem to take on the significance of some hidden personal power, but acquiesces when he realizes he will find it easier to meet with his writing agent, Saul (Brandon J. Simmons) without his oafish brother lurking around the house.
With more than a small dose of surrealism, the two brothers begin to shift personas as the play progresses. Lee has ideas about how to tell a real West story and will successfully manipulate Saul into guaranteeing him a large advance if he can only get his ideas typed out on paper. No easy task for this brutish man. Austin begins to fear his writing skills are unappreciated and soon senses “There’s nothing real here” for him. Inexorably the two men begin to deconstruct right before our eyes. Shepard illustrates how easily the male psyches and the societal structures on which they rest can tumble apart at the slightest provocation.
At the core of the Rep’s production is the absolutely stellar work of Sherman and Anderson as the brothers. I have never seen a play where two characters can become so inextricably linked they end up functioning as one single entity. It is easy to see why in his 2000 production of True West, director Matthew Warchus wanted the two brothers, Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly to be nominated for a single Tony. Shepard has these two men somehow morph into one hilarious yet horrifying living thing. The two blindly thrash around the stage attempting to find some solid ground to offer them a sense of security. Frantic attempts at contacting a woman friend, dreams of a back to nature life in the desert, and a manic stealing spree offer sparse relief for the brothers. By the time Mom (Lori Larsen) has returned, the two have gone far, far beyond rock bottom and they are bringing us right along with them for an unforgettable ride.
True West runs through February 16 at the Seattle Rep, in the Seattle Center at 155 Mercer Street. For more ticket information go to seattlerep.org or call 206-443-2222 hours: noon to curtain.