True West review- Steppenwolf presents a masterful revival

Namir Smallwood and Jon Michael Hill in Steppenwolf's "True West" by Sam Shepard, directed by Randall Arney

Steppenwolf Theatre Company is currently presenting its eagerly anticipated revival of Sam Shepard’s True West directed by Randall Arney and featuring ensemble members Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood, through August 25, 2019 in the Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St, Chicago.

Widely acknowledged to be the iconic playwright’s masterpiece, the play centers on the bred-in-the-bone vitriolic competition between two estranged brothers who have reconnected after 5 years in their absent mother’s house. Lee (played by Smallwood) is a transient burglar; Austin (played by Hill) is an Ivy League educated screenwriter. The agent provocateur enters the action in the form of Saul Kimmer, a Hollywood film producer (played by Francis Guinan) who comes to talk to Austin about a romantic period piece he’s working on. Kimmer is inveigled into a game of golf the next day with Lee, and effectively plays the 2 brothers off against one another by offering to buy Lee’s newly minted Western story only if Austin will write the script.

As they struggle for creative control, like the companions of Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, the brothers’ personalities meld into one another, becoming drunken Things and wrecking their mother’s house. Raucous, testosterone fueled, by turns bitterly funny/alarming and scary, the brothers begin to seem like a split- or more accurately- a doubled personality, a primary device of Shepard’s.

Namir Smallwood, Francis Guinan and Jon Michael Hill in Steppenwolf’s “True West”, by Sam Shepard

 The anecdotes they share about their hapless long gone father and the unexpected return of their affectless mother (played by Jacqueline Williams) shed light on the types of craziness that fueled their current folie a deux, (“madness of two”), a rare psychiatric disorder in which two or more people share the same delusions. That unusual condition has a high correlation with people who are isolated outsiders, like the protagonists in True West as the plot develops.

The secluded brothers swap confidence levels and the role of outlaw even as  Arney’s superb direction gives us an ensemble wherein edginess meets defiance and swaggering menace turns into a defensive placating mode. Quarrels become complaisance; Lee segues from eyes-wide-open threats to supplication for his brother’s help. At one point, Lee tells Austin that being brothers means nothing because in-family murders are most common.

 Ultimately, Austin concedes his brother’s superior creation, gives up writing for burglary, and turns the kitchen into a physical farce zone. The plants are dead, the house upended, when mama returns. Instead of heading away from the noise of crickets, and into the coyote filled desert together, violence erupts and the two brothers face off against one another as the lights fade.

Jaqueline Williams, Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood in “True West” at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre

There is a profound sense of irony in the parallel reality of each brother’s core envy of each other and efforts to secure the admiration of the other, while at the same time disparaging the other’s essential reality. Further, the main characters mine a deep well of dark humor while displaying enormous vulnerability as they trash each other, the memory of their father and their mother’s house. Then there is the underlying commentary about pandering to Hollywood and the internalized chaos that such embracing of false values causes with the brothers’ undeniable aspirations to achieve in that milieu. 

Both brothers agonize over what is real, what will seem real, as they try to craft a “true” Western.  Lee scorns the notion that he wants the status quo, but his yearning to succeed is very thinly covered by bravado, as he poignantly remarks about one of the houses ringing the desert, “Kinda’ suburban silence. Kinda’ place that sorta’ kills ya’ inside. Warm yellow lights. Mexican tile all around. . . . Blonde people movin’ in and outa’ the rooms, talkin’ to each other.”

Guinan as Saul Kimmer is perfect as the soulless, vicious producer, curiously devoid of humanity, a stick figure in a deliberately ill fitting toupee. Williams as mom is also imbued with a sense of ambiguity; she’s not all there. Steppenwolf’s True West is a showpiece for the two very fine male leads in the fullness of emergent virtuosity. Smallwood’s Lee is at once sinister, tender, his physicality that of a prowling panther. Hill, in shrewd contrast, remains oddly a self-conscious high achiever even as his booze fueled persona tries to mimic his brother’s style.

This is an ultra intelligent, emotionally engaging and complex play that draws you in from the first instant and holds you in thrall until long after you leave the theater.

Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood in “True West”, by Sam Shepard, directed by Randall Arney, in revival at Steppenwolf Theatre

Todd Rosenthal has given us a spare, pared down set reminiscent of any middle class kitchen in the 1970’s that becomes claustrophobic as the brilliant dialogue and restless drama overflows the ambience. Kudos to the rest of the terrific production team including Trevor Bowen for costume design; Ann G. Wrightson for lighting design; Richard Woodbury for sound design (those crickets and coyotes!) and original music; and Ned Mochel for the great fight choreography.

All photos by Michael Brosilow

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