Sam Shepard's "True West," directed by Tony Estrella and on stage at the Gamm through May 5, is a riveting tour de force.
A tale of sibling rivalry between two brothers (think Cain and Abel), Lee (Anthony Goes) and Austin (Steve Kidd,) "True West," is as complicated as its is simple; as humorous as it is heartbreaking; as outlandish as it is realistic, and as male-centric as all get out. It's so Sam Shepard.
Goes tackles the role of Lee with such brute force, and such a frightening, red-hot ferocity there are times you think he might drop dead on stage. And he nearly does ... at the hands of his brother. Goes plays Lee with terrifying emotion and intensity, made all the more palpable by the proximity of the stage to the audience. Kidd, in his transformation from nice guy to man possessed is extraordinary.
Set in the kitchen of their mother's Southern California desert bungalow, "True West" centers around Lee, a small-time thief and drifter, and his younger brother, Austin, a family man and screenwriter with an Ivy League education who is finishing, with some urgency, a script for his agent. Austin, prim, preppy and bespectacled — and hunched ardently over his typewriter — has come solo to the desert to meet his deadline in peace, water the plants — which are plentiful — and keep his eye on the house while his mom is on a junket to Alaska. When Lee shows up, the peaceful picture of a 1950s desert oasis — complete with crickets chirping in the background and hanging ferns aplenty — is shattered. The tidy kitchen dissolves into a hot mess of competition, hurt, rage, sorrow and long held grudges. The ghost of their father looms large. (Shepard's real life father and namesake was a violent alcoholic who lived in the desert.)
Wearing a greasy, sweat-stained ripped and grimy Tee-shirt, Lee guzzles cans of beer rapid-fire as he bullies and badgers his brother. When he learns Austin's agent Saul (Richard Donelly is so right for this role) will be coming to the house, he threatens to interfere and he does. To Austin's shock and disgust, Lee not only ends up playing a game of golf with Saul, he lands a deal for his own script and a movie deal. Suddenly Lee is at the typewriter and Austin is downing the booze. Is it role reversal or are the brothers really just alike?
The humorous moments, which, thank God, give us respite from the battles, come in the form of stolen toasters and piles of buttered toast.
Rae Mancini plays the mother, who appears briefly at the end, with a haunting, matter-of-fact detachment. I'm still thinking about that interaction. Actually, I'm still thinking about all the performances in "True West," and about Shepard — his plays, his life and his career. It's the kind of play that stays with you and the kind of acting you'll never forget.
"True West," a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 1983, is one of the all-time greatest American plays, according to Estrella, who is also Gamm's artistic director. In the program notes, Estrella reminds us that Shepard "earned the title 'poet laureate of America's emotional badlands' through plays that delve into the darkest corners of family life."
"It's Shepard's most brilliant play," said my friend Sean O'Connor, a New York-based award-winning playwright who once performed the role of Lee in a workshop production opposite Bruce Altman as Austin. "He's stripped the stage of all civilization and reduced it to two carnivorous, predatory beasts coming face to face in the Serengeti."
O'connor said every time he reads the play he's struck by Shepard's economy of writing of how "primal" the play is.
"It moves with the force of a train wreck to that last moment," he said, "... it's like watching a snake grab and swallow an alligator."
Don't miss this play.