By Sam Shepard
Directed by Lois Evans
Produced by Bay Theatre
Reviewed by Ted Ying
In an old “Star Trek” episode, two half-black and half-white aliens are chasing each other across the galaxy. They hate each other because one is white on the left side of his body and black on the right side and the other alien is reversed. The difference does not seem significant, but they despise each other for their racial disparity. The tragedy is that they are the really very much alike but they cannot see it through their hatred. “Star Trek” beats you over the head visually with the difference, but True West does it more subtly; the two brothers seem to be very different but turn out to be very similar and they still cannot see it. This is a roller coaster character study that is alternately dark and familiar but laced with some excellent humor.
The play opens with brothers Austin and Lee in their mother’s kitchen. Nebbish screenwriter Austin (Michael Feldsher) has come to take care of the house and plants while their mother is off on an Alaskan vacation. Brother Lee (Andy English), a vagabond and burglar, drops in to visit and sets off the tension between the brothers from the first few lines. Austin is trying to get slick Saul Kimmer (Glenn Vitale) to produce his play, but Lee manages to talk Saul into a game a golf where he hustles Saul into backing his idea of a “true to life” Western instead of Austin’s romance. As Lee tries to become a screenwriter, Austin slides from grace into depression and immorality. As their worlds are turned upside down and reversed even more tension mounts between the brothers until their mother (Dianne Hood) returns home and they have their final showdown like a modern day O.K. Corral.
This is a show that can be made or broken by the two leads’ effectiveness. Fortunately, the actors gave very solid performances. Feldsher was particularly adept at both the lunatic and the geek and gave a strong performance. English also gave a strong performance although he definitely handled the hoodlum much better than the nerd. However, both were delightfully unpredictable which helped heighten the funnier moments in the play. And both were good at letting go, since so much of this play requires an over-the-top delivery. Although her part is small, Hood did a decent job of being the cold water splashed into her sons’ faces that shocked them back to reality after the surreal developments. Vitale’s part needed to be very Hollywood and sensational, but he wasn’t quite up to it and didn’t quite build the tension between the brothers as he should have. They were left to force the friction between them on their own. Fortunately, Feldsher and English ably carried on.
Set designer Bart Evans’ quaint little kitchen greeted us as we entered the theater and truly set the tone. It was a very creative set for a small space and definitely gave the impression of a cheap trailer home or prefab shack. The actors and stage manager, Andy McLendon kept the show moving along including very smooth transitions between scenes. Fight director, Robb Hunter, really made the action scenes quite credible – which was difficult considering how physical the scenes were. Lighting designer, Karen Owens contributed a solid design although there were a few mishaps in execution. Both lighting and sound were not complicated, but effective. Director, Lois Evans, did a competent job, but did not truly do the text justice. A greater attention to detail would have improved the show. Although the performances of the leads were appropriately big and melodramatic, the rest of the show did not quite support that. Additional set dressing and props could have been added to enhance the chaos towards the end. Some of the blocking seemed rather static for a play that needs to keep moving quickly. And the pacing needed an overall vision for the show (the pacing at the beginning seemed fine but when the tension built towards the end, the pacing did not seem to speed up, but rather slowed a little).
The play is one of Shepard’s best character studies. Through nine quickly changing scenes the momentum builds and you watch the two protagonists slowly morph into the other character. Even though the subsequent actions seem ludicrous and exaggerated, the change is so gradual that the audience can understand and sympathize with the characters and how they end up doing what they do; at least until the somewhat surprising ending. If you’ve never seen this play, I would recommend seeing it because the play is well written and funny and the leads give good performances.
Running Time 1:50 including one 15-minute intermission
When: November 6-8 at 8:00PM and November 8 at 3:00PM
Where: Bay Theatre, 275 West St. Annapolis, MD 21401
Tickets: $30 for adults, $25 for seniors/students with identication
Information and Reservations: 410-268-1333, by email: [email protected] or visit the website.