Over the next three weeks, Theatre in the Park is presenting three plays: Sam Shepard’s True West (Sept. 8-11), John Cariani’s Almost, Maine (Sept. 15-18), and Del Shores’ Southern Baptist Sissies (Sept. 22-25). Although advertised as being performed “in rep,” this mini-festival does not fit the typical repertory structure (in which two or more shows are performed by the same company, in rotation or alternately). However, fully producing three plays in three weeks at the same theater on the same stage with the same design team is certainly nothing to sneeze at, especially if all three are done well. The shows chosen are very different from one another, which makes the prospect of multiple TIP visits this month an attractive one.
This three-stop tour of contemporary U.S. theater kicked off Thursday night with True West, by American playwright and actor Sam Shepard. The play has a bizarre production history, with a San Francisco premiere and an Off-Broadway run in 1980, followed by its appearance as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1983 and, finally, its Broadway debut — and Tony® nomination for Best Play — in 2000.
Considered by many an “American Classic,” True West is a dark comedy that zooms in on the interactions of two brothers: intellectual screenwriter Austin and beer-guzzling cat burglar Lee, played by Ira David Wood IV and Jesse R. Gephart, respectively. Drop both characters into a kitchen on the outskirts of the California desert, and stand back.
Ira Wood stars as Austin, he of the glasses and well-ironed trousers. Wood’s subtlety in Act One is perfectly suited to the character and truly sets the tone for the play’s introduction. His economical movement and barely restrained frustration allow the character to simmer rather than explode.
The explosion is left to Jesse Gephart as Lee, he of the Budweiser can and ratty undershirt. Lee’s bold entrance onto the stage in Act One starkly contrasts with Austin’s meek appearance, clearly delineates these characters, and sets up the ensuing conflict with great effect. Gephart is funny, honest, and loveable in this role, a fact which continues until the very final moments.
Playwright Sam Shepard obviously intends for there to be a strong difference in pace and mood between Act One and Act Two. However, this production’s first act moves a little too slowly to be as engaging as the dialogue would allow. Those “quiet opening moments” last for far too long. Still, while both actors do admirable work here, Gephart certainly steals the first act. Mind you, this has much to do with the personality of Shepard’s goofier character.
The second act is where things begin to get wild. As the brothers’ fratboy night at home barrels along, we are treated to some very high-octane physical comedy and goofy banter. Ira Wood really owns the second act, when his character is allowed to spread his wings, toss a few drinks back, and really dig into his emotions, essentially switching roles with Jesse Gephart.
Wood’s physical comedy is extremely effective in the earlier half of Act Two. However, we enter Jim Carrey territory as we proceed forward; and, by the time we’ve reached the end, the play has become a full-on Tom and Jerry cartoon, something I doubt that Shepard intended.
Gephart, at least, manages to keep himself in line through the end, opting for character development rather than a crescendo of tomfoolery. It should be noted, however, that Wood and Gephart work beautifully together and complement each other quite effectively. They are also skilled improvisers and any mishaps (twisted dialogue or prop malfunctions) are handled with expert precision.
Larry Evans comes on board as Hollywood producer Saul Kimmer. He looks like he just fell out of a Blake Edwards movie, and Evans plays him quite well. He does his job, which is primarily expository while keeping his character grounded in reality.
Kathy Norris, as the boys’ mother, has the demeanor and sweetness of dear mom, but not the power that the audience is hoping to see. There’s so much activity going on with the clown brothers that she hardly makes a dent during her big moment. It’s in these final 15 minutes that the entire show’s rhythms feel clunky and misdirected, with any opportunity for reflection or emotion thrown out the window in exchange for farce.
This may have been exacerbated by the absence of an objective director. Ira Wood and Jesse Gephart are listed as co-directors of the piece. Acting is hard enough without trying … simultaneously … to gauge your pace and how you’re coming across to your audience. It is a noble attempt, by two talented actor-directors; but this show really needs an assistant director.
Thomas Mauney’s scenic and lighting designs are major highlights of the production. The team has opted to keep us in 1980, the play’s original setting; and Mauney’s attention to detailed set dressing and character spacing is impeccable. The show’s myriad props are also appropriate to time and place. Mauney’s gradual, subtle lighting shifts give a sense of passing time near the California desert. The set, masterfully constructed by Jeffrey Nugent, has only one fault: a conspicuous lack of detail beneath the kitchen sink.
The sound elements, operated by Edward Arriola, are really the play’s third leading character. The sounds of nature are referenced in the dialogue and those used by this production are organic and not scene-stealing. Appropriate mood-setting music cues are used between scenes; Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand” is particularly apropos and a better theme song could not have been chosen for True West.
Elaine Brown’s costumes bring much to the believable setting. The characters appear a tad warmly dressed for the California desert, but their personalities are well reflected — and their performances enhanced — by their clothing. Larry Evans’ over-the-top Hollywood outfits are particularly fun and perhaps the show’s most “1980” element.
Smoking on stage is perfectly legal in North Carolina, being one of the few exceptions to the SmokeFreeNC law of 2010. Notices about “cigarette smoking” are posted in the lobby; but many audience members, including yours truly, foolishly thought this was akin to the “smoke effect, strobe effects, gunshots, etc.” notice so often seen and wrote it off as an indication of prop cigarettes. A real puff or two in a show is not likely to cause any issues. But when your two leads essentially chain-smoke through the first hour of the show, you have problems out in the house.
My own allergies kicked in around the 20-minute mark; and the men’s room at intermission was not devoid of complaints about the smoke, complete with some coughs and nose-blows. At least one couple complained loudly about the lingering smoke and left just before Act Two started. Of course, in Act Two, we add the element of burning things on stage. Smoke crept up into that audience and sat up in the rafters for all to breathe for two hours. Again, perhaps if a director was in the house, instead of onstage smoking, some notice might have been taken. If you have an extreme allergy to cigarette smoke, you need to stay home for this one. Otherwise, there are certainly plenty of big laughs and a several touching moments to be had from this production.
This play is in PG-13 territory for some harsh language and drunken shenanigans.
Theatre in the Park presents TRUE WEST at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 9 and 10 and 3 p.m. Sept. 11 in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.
TICKETS: $24 ($18 students, seniors 60+, and active-duty military personnel), except $16 per ticket for groups of 10 or more.
BOX OFFICE: 919-831-6058 or http://www.etix.com/.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-831-6058 or http://theatreinthepark.com/whatson/group-sales.
SHOW: http://theatreinthepark.com/calendar/event/60/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/1131590256886743/.
VIDEO PREVIEW: https://www.facebook.com/theatreintheparkraleigh/videos/10154148414054550/.
PRESENTER/VENUE: http://www.theatreinthepark.com/, https://www.facebook.com/theatreintheparkraleigh, https://twitter.com/TheatreInPark, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theatre_in_the_Park.
NOTE: All shows are wheelchair/walker accessible, and large-print playbills are usually available.
True West (1980 San Francisco and Off-Broadway and 2000 Broadway dark comedy): http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/2870/true-west (Samuel French, Inc.), http://www.lortel.org/ (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/true-west-8908 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/True_West_%28play%29 (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Study Guide: http://www.cygnettheatre.com/files/Cygnet_TrueWest_StudyGuide.pdf (Cygnet Theatre of San Diego, CA).
Sam Shepard (playwright and screenwriter): http://www.sam-shepard.com/ (fan site), http://www.lortel.org/ (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/sam-shepard-8584 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001731/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Shepard (Wikipedia).
Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing on it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.