Local actor-directors Jesse R. Gephart and Ira David Wood IV shine very brightly as they co-direct and star in Sam Shepard’s True West, which (unfortunately) only plays one weekend at Raleigh’s Theatre in the Park.
Often quite funny, True West is an extended interaction between two brothers. (Can you say “dysfunctional”?). But there is much more to the play than “funny.” These brothers have not seen each other in five years, and they are quite obviously not on good terms. Furthermore, each of them eventually interacts every bit as much with himself as he does with his brother. A key phrase: “I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be you.” (And we were surprised at which brother spoke that line!)
Austin (played by Ira Wood) is the younger of the two. He is well-educated, and he has what his brother refers to as “in Ivy-League diploma.” He has a family “up north.” And he has come back out west to house-sit for their mother who is on vacation in Alaska. Busy working on a screenplay (presumably a Western), he is expecting Saul, a film producer to drop in for a meeting. Austin is calm, refined, and urbane.
Lee (played by Jesse Gephart), on the other hand, is more of a “raw” personality. Words that apply to him: drifter, burglar, conman, bully …. Uninvited, he has dropped in on his brother at their mother’s house and proceeds to distract Austin — mercilessly. Convinced that he, too, can be a writer, Lee gets Austin to write an outline for a story that he makes up. Suddenly, a sibling rivalry erupts as they compete first for Austin’s writing efforts and later for the attention of the producer.
Which of these two Western stories will depict the “true west?” Has there ever been any truth in our popular stories of “The West”? And are we talking about truth in art? Or Truth in business?
Jesse Gephart gives us a Lee who is overbearing, crass, threatening, and demanding — perfect for this character. At the same time, however, Gephart manages to make us feel his character’s pain. We might not admire this Lee, but we do not dislike him.
Ira Wood’s Austin has the dedicated, collected attitudes that we would expect from a professional writer. Visibly annoyed by the distractions, he still manages to be polite to Lee. Wood gives us a double vision of this man — Austin obviously feels threatened on many levels, yet the character goes to great lengths not to let it show. In addition, this Austin’s attitude toward Lee contains equal measures of disdain and envy, liberally laced with simultaneous feelings of inferiority and superiority.
Jesse Gephart and Ira Wood play off of each other splendidly. Watch for subtle changes in the characters themselves as well as in the dynamics of their relationship. Has there been a switch of identities?
Larry Evans plays Saul, the Hollywood producer who wants Austin’s screenplay. Or does he want Lee’s? Evans shows him as all business with just the right touch of sleaze.
And then there’s their mother who enters at a particularly low point. Kathy Norris plays her as someone who just barely manages to mask her reactions.
It is worth mentioning that “the old man,” while never actually appearing onstage, is very much a character in this story. Pay attention to how overwhelming his presence is at times.
Set, sound, lights, props, costume — all contribute. Costumes, by Elaine Brown, help to define the characters. Austin simply looks like a writer. Likewise, Lee wears the “uniform” of his “type” — right down to the “wife-beater” strap t-shirt. And let’s not forget the leisure suits and the interesting hairstyle chosen for Saul, the producer.
Thomas Mauney has designed a set that very much illustrates the mother’s lifestyle. The forty-five degree thrust of the stage is an interesting choice. The child-art on the refrigerator reinforces the idea that Austin is her favorite of the two sons. Mauney also supplied the lighting design.
And a tip of the hat to sound designer Edward Arriola’s choices of crickets and coyotes on the fringe of this world.
Who else but Sam Shepard … would write a scene in which a man has amassed a collection of eight or 10 stolen toasters? … would choreograph a scene of golf club versus typewriter? … would name one character Austin and then have the other one show an obsession with Texas?
And let’s not forget that the Los Angeles film industry casts its shadow on the world of this play, and the initials of the two main characters are L & A.
SECOND OPINION: Sept. 9th Raleigh, NC Triangle Review review by Dustin K. Britt: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2016/09/theatre-in-the-park-kicks-off-its-three-week-repertory-run-with-true-west/.
Theatre in the Park presents TRUE WEST at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 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.
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).
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.