“This season is our 25th anniversary and when I was planning it, I was really committed to representing what I thought was true to the history of the type of work that Rep Stage has produced over the years,” Rep Stage Producing Artistic Director Joseph W. Ritsch says. “For me, the focus of the work has always been contemporary American classics.”
You can’t think “American classic play” without evoking the name Sam Shepard. Rep Stage had done three other major Shepard pieces over the 25 years—Buried Child, Lie of the Mind and Fools for Love. For that reason, Ritsch chose True West to finish out the season, but wanted to do something special with it—something that would tie the past, present and future of the theater together.
Ritsch felt that, as dark as True West is, it’s also quite funny, and he thought it was a great production to close the 25th season with. Vincent Lancisi, Everyman Theatre’s founding artistic director, who directed the very first show at Rep Stage (Marvin’s Room) and also directed Buried Child in 1994. Getting Lancisi back to direct True West was a top priority.
“He’s a good friend and I also consider him a mentor; he very much took me under his wing when I got to this region in 2008,” Ritsch says. “I’ve assisted as well as directed for him and I’ve choreographed a number of things at Everyman. We had been talking about this for a while.”
It was nice to be invited back, Lancisi says. He has great memories working there and collaborating with Rep Stage during the early years of Everyman. “We had collaborated three times and that helped to breathe life into another young theater at the time,” the director says. “When they asked me to come back for True West, I just felt it was kismet.”
While many people know Shepard as a movie actor, Lancisi champions him as a visionary playwright.
“He had a lot to say about Hollywood and duality and personalities, the motivation of money and how it waters down our artistic impulse and creativity,” he says. “He was a bit of a rebel and it was sort of an irony that he became a pretty good movie star because he was breaking all the rules of conventional theater with these plays. At the same time, he was part of this Hollywood machine that he wails against in True West.”
Another way the production is paying nod to its history is by having Valerie Lash, Rep Stage’s founder, playing the role of Mom.
“She has a very long-standing relationship with Vinny as well,” Ritsch says. “The anniversaries of the two theater companies are basically a year apart and they shared a number of co-productions in the early years, and he directed a number of times here as well.”
The play follows a pair of estranged brothers—Austin, a well-educated man, and Lee, a thieving con man—who come together in their mother’s kitchen as Austin is writing a screenplay. Over the course of the play, which includes plenty of drinks and arguments, the brothers realize they may not be as different as they think.
Produced by Rep Stage
April 26 – May 13, 2018
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“We’re trying to do a naturalistic production of it by highlighting the sort of expressionistic moments that lift this into an important play,” Lancisi says. “It’s definitely about these two brothers and we go to the core of the predator vs. the pursued, and how that impacts us.”
Tim Getman, a company member of Everyman Theatre (and Woolly Mammoth) who was in Rep Stage’s production of Lie of the Mind, plays Lee; Daniel Corey takes on his sibling Austin. James Whalen also stars.
“To be able to work with the caliber of artists, actors and the design team I am working with is a real gift,” Lancisi says. “These actors go to the mat digging for the truth and watching them on stage is like watching a master class in acting and it’s been a real privilege to work with them.”
Ritsch has a history with the play himself, having played Saul when he was an undergraduate and he has loved True West ever since. He’s impressed with the spin Lancisi has put on the show.
“Vinny is really wonderful at helping actors create specific characters,” he says. “The balance of comedy and dark in this piece is really important. When Shepard was alive, he often talked about the insider vs. the outsider and where that switches in this play and I think Vinny has done a wonderful job of crafting that journey.”
The other thing the playwright was often quoted about with this piece is that he felt it was a play about identity. “I think right now there are a lot of us feeling like insiders and a lot of us feeling like outsiders and the chaos of the wild west vs. the collaboration of democracy and who we are as citizens is very much a large conversation right now,” Ritsch says. “This play, which premiered back in the ’80s, feels very relevant.”
Rep Stage recently dropped the brochure for its next season, which will be Ritsch’s sixth season at the helm, and he feels the theater will build off the momentum created in the 25th anniversary season. “I have learned a lot about our audience. I am very committed to new work, particularly work by those who are under-represented voices. [We] have been doing a world premiere every season and will continue to do that next season,” he says. “Planning a season is a very delicate balance of producing work that I’m personally invested in and work I think speaks to what the community wants to see.”