There’s no mistaking a Sam Shepard play: the staccato line delivery, the twisted family dynamics, the antisocial, destructive personalities, the creeping sense of doom. True West, directed by Patrick White and running at the Ghent Playhouse through June 4, is one of Shepard’s finest, with all of his hallmarks on display.
Austin (Kevin Kilb) is housesitting for his mother (Stephanie Sloane) while she’s in Alaska; he plans on working on his screenplay and taking some meetings with Saul (Rob Weber), who’s in the film industry, while he’s there. Austin’s brother Lee (Nathaniel Drake) blows into town and derails those plans – he’s the anti-Austin, pure unpredictable chaos. The brothers coexist warily until Lee decides that he, too, wants to get into the screenwriting game, blowing Austin’s plans out of the water and pitting the two brothers, who are more alike than they think, against one another.
Kilb’s Austin was on-target; his character arc was clearly defined. I do wish I had seen a bit more fire from him, especially in Act Two, but what was there was good. Drake’s Lee was up and down – when interacting with other characters, he didn’t seem engaged (his perplexing lack of eye contact with the other actors was at fault here) but when on his own, his stage business was spot-on – sneaking an item out of a bag, toeing a bit of food away from himself on the floor. His character seemed to be most evident when not in the spotlight, and that was the character I wanted to know more about.
While the play itself, I was pleased to see (as I haven’t seen it in probably twenty years) has aged well, the stakes in this particular production unfortunately just didn’t seem high enough. Lee needs to be a huge figure – terrifying and unpredictable, arriving to shake Austin’s staid world upside down. Instead, it seemed more like the brothers were merely annoying one another for most of the show. There was also a prop issue – the set (realistically and creatively designed by Sam Reilly) is almost like a fifth character that gets utterly trashed over the course of the production. This does need to happen; that’s not being called into question. However, how much, exactly, do you want to involve the audience in said trashing? Twice (where I was sitting) props (and pieces of props) flew off the stage into the audience; once the items in question were sharp plastic shards from a set piece being destroyed. There’s absolutely something to be said about pulling an audience into a show – but when you’re in fear for your own safety, you’ve been taken out of the action completely, and a theatergoer knows it’s hard to get that focus back once it’s been lost.
It was a treat, for me (as always) to have gotten another chance to see Shepard’s work onstage; as the years pass, the chances to do so seem to grow fewer and farther between, and it was a pleasure to hear his words again.
“True West,” The Ghent Playhouse, 6 Town Hall Place, Ghent, through June 4, $20-$10, Run time: 1 hour and 50 minutes with a 15-minute intermission, (518) 392-6264, www.ghentplayhouse.org