By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
Did you ever hear of Robert E. Sherwood? Probably not. But back in the day, he was just about the most famous American writer around. He was a four-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize – three times for his plays and once for a biography he wrote. He was also a screenwriter, helping to create some of the most memorable movies from the Golden Age and even won an Academy Award for his work. And yet, less than 100 years later, nobody even remembers him.
True West continues at barebones productions through September 29. Braddock Ave, Braddock. www.barebonesproductions.com
I found myself thinking about poor ol’ Bob as I was sitting in the audience at barebones productions’ latest offering – True West by Sam Shepard. There was a time, about 30 years ago, when Shepard was one of the hottest playwrights in America. He’d been a big noise in the formidable years of off-Broadway, won a Pulitzer for his play, Buried Child; True West was a Pulitzer finalist in 1980 and he even got an Oscar nomination for his performance as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff.
Though he certainly never disappeared from the scene (he was writing plays up until 2014), Shepard’s star has dimmed over the years and, sadly, he died in 2017. So I found myself wondering if Sam will eventually join Bob on the used-to-be-big shelf. Even today, I think that if non-theatrical folk know him at all, it’s only because he lived with Jessica Lange for 25 years.
It might be best to say that Shepard was a writer for his time. Beginning in the 1960s, theater really went on an experimental rampage for a few decades and Shepard was in the thick of it. Part abstractionism, part magic realism, part allusion and metaphor — anything but the “kitchen sink” realism so in vogue now – Shepard’s work was written in an oblique poetical style and his focus was almost always on the rugged individualism of the American male.
Certainly True West ticks those boxes. It’s about two brothers, Austin and Lee, and the trouble they get up to. Austin is a buttoned-down, laced-up kinda guy in SoCal, house-sitting for his mother (she’s on an Alaskan vacation) while working on the screenplay he’s promised to a producer. Unannounced, and certainly uninvited, Lee shows up. He’s a thief and a con man and hasn’t talked with Austin in years. As slovenly as Austin is prim, Lee brings menace and plot complications with him. Outside of a couple of brief scenes with the producer and the mother, the bulk of True West is the emotional dance between the two brothers and how Lee ultimately forces Austin to strip away his slightly suspect sophistication and become the real man he is underneath.
I’ve seen this show several times before, but many, many years ago. Watching this barebones production only increased my concern for Shepard’s future reputation … because True West has not aged well. Definitely not.
It’s possible that back in 1983, this battle between Lee and Austin might have seemed rather majestic in its own way, man reclaiming his primacy after the humiliation of Vietnam, Watergate and the rise of alternate voices in the culture.
But that’s not how it plays in 2019. Lee and Austin are little more than frat boys; bros doing what bros gotta do – namely getting drunk and trashing the house. It’s nearly impossible to not yell at these men in their 30s: “Oh for God’s sake, aren’t you two ever going to grow up? Why don’t you go play ‘Red Dead Redemption’ and leave the adults alone?”
The barebones production, directed by Patrick Jordan on a very handsome set from Tony Ferrieri, perhaps compounds the problem a little bit. Jordan seems to want to avoid Shepard’s indirect and metaphoric poetical quality and aggressively informs the production with a kitchen-sink realism that – I think – Shepard didn’t furnish. As the director, it’s certainly Jordan’s right to attack the piece with his vision of it, but he needs to make a case for his reading of the material and I just wasn’t seeing it.
Jordan plays Lee in this production with Gabriel King as Austin. They are two exceptionally strong actors and, as is absolutely necessary with this play, fuse their two performances into one solid whole. (That Lee and Austin are essentially two halves of one person has always been one of the conceits of True West.)
If you look up the word “thankless” in the dictionary, you’ll find the roles of the producer and the mother listed, but Randy Kovitz and Heidi Mueller Smith act like there’s actually something there to act. I also want to make special mention of the crew who have to clean up the stage every night and reset it for the next performance. I speak from experience when I say that actors are a dime a dozen … but a professional stage crew is worth their weight in gold.
So if you’re a Shepard fan you might want to catch this production since I’m not sure how much longer his works are going to be performed. (That Jessica Lange thing’s only going to keep him afloat for so long.) Maybe someday his work will be on a double bill with Robert E. Sherwood.