By Nick Eustis
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
The American West has a mystical draw that has defined its history.
People throughout history have made the journey west in search of better opportunities. But the West Coast is a place of many faces with cultural oases surrounded by harsh and barren landscapes. That’s the inspiration for the works of the great playwright, Sam Shepard.
Shepard’s 1980 play True West is the latest show from Bare Bones Productions and opens on September 6. The Braddock-based theater company has, with founder and artistic director Patrick Jordan at the helm, produced dozens of shows over the past 16 years, many of them plays never done before in Pittsburgh. For Jordan, True West is a classic of the American stage.
“I think it’s just this perfectly distilled little diamond of a play,” says Jordan. “It’s funny, it’s scary, it’s visceral, it punches you in the gut, but you find yourself laughing throughout the whole thing.”
Shepard’s work is known for its surrealist elements and critical view of American culture, often viewed through the lens of characters living on the fringes of society. True West indeed carries these trademarks, telling the story of estranged brothers Austin, a well-educated Hollywood screenwriter, and Lee, a drifter drawn to life in the desert. The play digs into the many cultural facets of American life through their clashing personalities, a sibling rivalry taken to extremes.
“Sam Shepard was wanting to write a play about duality, and how that’s a very real thing for people,” Jordan says. “The play talks about what’s true and false about American culture, and I feel like now is the perfect time to have a conversation about that, especially when people are having a hard time figuring out what’s true and false.”
The play is one Jordan has had his eye on for quite some time, but has been unable to successfully stage for one reason or another. The death of Sam Shepard in 2017, as well as the passing of Jordan’s colleague, mentor, friend and one of the city’s greatest actors, Bingo O’Malley in June 2019, brought the play to the forefront for Jordan. True West was the last show Jordan talked with O’Malley, about producing before his death.
“We had a mini-production meeting with him a few days before he passed about this show,” Jordan says. “That added to the fire that we had to do this play right now.”
In addition to directing the production, Jordan will be on stage as well, playing the desert-living brother, Lee. He will play opposite Gabriel King as screenwriter Austin, someone Jordan has worked alongside in the past.
“This is the third show we’ve worked on together, so we’ve got a built-in rapport and we know what to expect from each other,” Jordan says. “It’s almost like a family-thing.”
Rounding out the cast is Randy Kovitz as Saul, a Hollywood producer, and Heidi Mueller Smith as the mother of Austin and Lee. Kovitz also directed the play’s fight scenes.
Just as crucial to a production as a strong cast is a talented crew, which True West definitely brings to the table. Lighting design is managed by veteran technician Andrew David Ostrowski, known for his prolific work with Pittsburgh City Theatre. Sound design is in the hands of Dave Bjornson, who has worked with Bare Bones on several past shows.
Stage manager Brittany Spinelli also worked previously with Jordan, managing Bare Bones 2018 production of Taylor Mac’s “Hir.” Finally, the set was designed by Tony Ferrieri, who was the 2018 recipient of the Carol R. Brown Creative Achievement Award, recognizing his 40-year career in set design.
With a powerhouse cast and crew, Jordan hopes that audiences will enjoy the theater experience they have in Braddock, and knows it will be a unique, truly Bare Bones show that everyone can relate to.
“Everyone’s gonna take something different,” Jordan said. “Our production’s going to be different, it will be very much ours.”
True West runs from September 6-29. Go to barebonesproductions.com for show dates and tickets.