Despite its ending, with 12 toasters and the guts of about six issues of The Yale Herald strewn about the stage, this weekend’s production of “True West” in the Nick Chapel is far from a typical undergraduate production. Rather than soaring to the gaudy heights of brutality, the play’s climactic violence is the logical outcome of the tension that builds throughout the play.
Written by Sam Shepard, a Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright and screenwriter, and directed by Adam Chanzit ’02, it is an intense exploration of what constitutes reality in a world that seems to be divided between the emotional emptiness of suburbia and the desolate landscape of the California desert.
The focus of “True West” is the evolving relationship between two brothers, Austin and Lee, over the course of two days. At first, they seem completely different — Austin, played by David Mount ’03, is an Ivy League-educated Hollywood scriptwriter who hopes to close his latest deal while helping out his vacationing mother by house-sitting. His plans are interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Lee, James DuRuz ’03, a petty thief who has just returned from three months of drifting around the desert of California alone.
But by the end of the play, they have become nearly interchangeable: It is Lee who has sold his script to the big-shot Hollywood producer, while Austin is the drunken and disorderly one. Their constant rivalry and anger slowly evolve from a conflict into a symbiosis, as their disparate personalities become more and more intertwined.
Shepard uses these two characters to examine the line between reality and artificiality. The landscape on which the characters range is the suburbs of Los Angeles, whose placid surface is slowly scraped away to reveal an inherent emptiness.
“There’s nothing real down here, least of all me,” Austin confesses to his brother.
But “reality” comes under even greater scrutiny as Shepard seems to question the ability of any story to tell a deeper “truth” about its characters or life in general. The big-shot screenwriter Saul Kimmer, played by Brian Johnson ’01, drops Austin’s small-scale — but more universal — love story in favor of Lee’s ludicrous yarn of two men engaged in a ridiculous, endless chase through the panhandle of Texas.
The spare and naturalistic production, under Chanzit’s direction, leaves plenty of room for the talents of Mount and DuRuz to shine, as they both managed to stay one step ahead of the cliches of sibling rivalry plotlines. The pleasant, middle-class atmosphere of the neat kitchen designed by Marisa Bass ’03, is a good foil for what the viewer must imagine of the vast desert landscape from which Lee has just returned.
Mount gives depth and plausibility to Austin’s transition from a preppy to a petty larcenist. His desperation upon realizing the emptiness of his life, as well as the urgency of his groveling to his brother to take him into the more “real” landscape of the desert, seems candid and strangely immediate. DuRuz expresses the latent violence of the frustrated, uneducated, directionless Lee without descending into stereotypes of brutality. He carefully lays out the psychological split within Lee that allows him to be simultaneously a violent extortionist and a skillful golfer and negotiator.
Johnson, as Saul, is an amusing representative of the artificial world of Hollywood. His first encounter with Lee is filled with well-placed awkward silences that speak eloquently of the distance between their perspectives.
As the boys’ mother, who is supposedly in Alaska as the production opens but arrives at the close to find her house and family in shambles, Emily Guilmette ’03 was adequate, though her portrayal did not do quite enough to explain how or why the boys’ mother would tiptoe into their lives and then leave just as carefully, seemingly impervious to the physical and emotional turmoil around her.
The production succeeds because the skillful acting and understated production respects the brilliance of Shepard’s play and leaves us with a thought-provoking image of life in the void.
Friday at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.
Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.