True West

True West by Sam Shepard presented in June 2009 by GRRC

Theater Review

By Eric Rezsnyak on June 24, 2009

In his program notes for Sam Shepard's "True West," director Michael Arve refers to the piece as mythic in scope. That may seem high-minded for a story about two brothers hashing out a clichéd Western screenplay, but he's actually dead on. Once you look beyond the superficial details of the play, you find a thoughtful, even disturbing, look at quite a few Big Ideas. From the deeply engrained sparring between siblings (Cain and Abel started something big), to the soul-stripping effects of suburbia, to some brief commentary on how the country's geography has a profound effect on its people, "True West" is a smart, sometimes funny, ultimately brutal play brought to life through equally smart staging and a fantastic cast.

The story opens on Austin (Jeff Zielinski), a buttoned-down screenwriter house-sitting for his mother while she's on a trip to Alaska. Austin planned to take the opportunity away from his wife and family to hunker down on the script for a period piece he's working on, and to have some meetings with a film producer who he hopes will buy it. Those plans are derailed by the unexpected arrival of Austin's older brother, Lee, best described as a complete disaster of a human being.

As portrayed by Louie Podlaski, Lee lacks any redeeming qualities (well, he has a full head of hair; I guess there's that). He is a liar, a thief, a braggart, a slob, a cheat, and chiefly an asshole who throws fits whenever he doesn't get his way. Lee spends a good chunk of Act I distracting Austin from his writing work while dismissing just about every facet of his northern lifestyle. Austin responds by trying to placate his brother as much as possible, until Lee makes the con of his life, swooping in and convincing the producer to abandon Austin's project, and instead shell out the bucks to make a movie that Lee came up with on the fly. Suddenly the brothers' roles are reversed, with Lee feebly grasping at a golden ring he had long thought out of reach, and Austin despondent, feeling like a failure. Their lifetime of familial conditioning falls apart, leaving two emotionally raw men caged together, and before long we get a room full of broken dishes, roughly a half-dozen stolen toasters, and at least one attempted murder.

The relationship between brothers is often a complicated one, and is typically set pretty early in life. Shepard taps into two powerful archetypes that are identifiable to almost every family: the black sheep who, somewhere along the way, got the memo that he was a failure and decided to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the peacemaker, who tries in vain to keep everyone happy, even as his own ego is repeatedly beaten and bruised. Both Zielinski and Podlaski do an astonishing job bringing these characters to life and making them real people, rather than just broad concepts.

At first I thought Podlaski had gone overboard with Lee's thick Southern bumpkin accent, especially in contrast to Austin, who had no accent at all. (I was also repeatedly distracted by the overly stained wifebeater Lee wore throughout the play; we get it, he's a mess.) But ultimately Podlaski won me over, and I can't imagine Lee portrayed any other way. Regardless, watching Podlaski control the stage was fascinating. At times he paced like some kind of desperate animal, at others he was sly and focused, twisting the characters into just the position he wanted them. But he never lost that simmering rage, built up and buried deep after years of resentment. He committed fully to the roll and brought touches of genuine humor and malice to an otherwise pathetic character.

My high opinion of Zielinski's acting was cemented by one particular scene, in which he tells Lee a story about their father, destitute and in desperate need of medical attention, and how he lost all his teeth, his money, and then his fake teeth. For a few minutes I forgot I was watching a play; instead it felt like a friend was telling me an impossibly sad story about his own family. It was totally captivating, and felt true, not like fiction at all. Zielinski carried that level of craft throughout the play, making Austin's somewhat sudden shift in character in the second act somehow plausible.

Two other actors also played in supporting roles. Stephen Elliott appears as Saul, the quintessential slick Hollywood producer who tells every writer that they've just pitched him the best idea he's heard in five years. And local stage legend Diane Chevron appears briefly as the brothers' returning mother, her intentionally detached performance suggesting that there are far more issues in this middle-American family that any two-hour play could hope to address fully.

Review reprinted courtesy of City Newspaper