Brotherly Love Shepard style

If you think your family is dysfunctional, take a look at the brothers in “True West.” The 1980 work by playwright/actor Sam Shepard is on stage through Sunday in South Bend Civic Theatre’s Barbara K. Warner Studio Theatre. I guarantee it will have you looking at your own sibling squabbles in a different light. After a beginning in San Francisco, the play was first produced by Chicago’s fledgling Steppenwolf Theatre with John Malkovitch and Gary Sinese as the brothers. Most recently John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in the limited run Broadway revival and even switched roles at different performances. “True West” is very rarely produced by community groups, the obvious reasons being the language (not profane but skewed) of the script and the demands of the two major roles, the brothers Lee and Austin. Lee (the amazing Scott Jackson) has dropped in on Austin (an equally adept Aaron Nichols) after an absence of five years.  Austin, a screenwriter with a wife and family “in the north,” is working on a project he hopes to sell to a producer and house-sitting in Southern California for their mother, on vacation in Alaska. Lee, an alcoholic hustler more inclined to steal than work, has been living alone in the desert and is definitely an unexpected — and increasingly unwelcome — guest. As Lee picks away at his more and more uncomfortable younger brother, he insinuates himself into more and more of Austin’s life, to the point of usurping his place with the producer, Saul Kimmer (Jim Jones), by creating an unrealistic screenplay outline about the new — the “true” — West which Kimmer buys to the extent of dropping Austin’s project when he refuses to write the script for Lee. This is the proverbial straw that exposes the other sides of both brothers. Shepard  has been quoted as saying that he wanted the play “to give a taste of what it feels like to be two-sided.” He more than exceeded his expectations. By the final blackout, the brothers have completely exchanged personas … or have they? Have their true natures finally surfaced? And, after the last confrontation, where will they go from there? Watching Lee weave an insidious and frighteningly familiar web around his initially compliant brother is like watching a snake charm its prey. Downing beer after beer and circling the struggling writer, Jackson is an hypnotic presence. You want Austin to stand up and throw him out for good. When he does, it is only because the brothers have become the worst of each other.  The inevitable collision is, to say the least, explosive and chaotic. Returning briefly from her cruise, their Mother (Mary Ann Moran) can only survey the wreckage before heading to a hotel and admonish them not to fight in the house.     The juxtaposition of these two fine actors draws you in to this absurd nightmare of sibling rivalry and keeps you riveted.  Whether or not you want to dissect Shepard’s work symbolically, metaphorically or psychologically —  or just sit back and be hilariously horrified at the mayhem — is up to you. There is no doubt that it has been given an excellent production and one that should be seen. The direction is by Leigh Taylor with a “toast” to the hard working props crew. For show times and tickets, check the SBCT website listed here.

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