Chicago Theatre Review
Sibling Rivalry Gone Berserk
True West – Shattered Globe Theatre
The third in Sam Shepard’s personal Family Trilogy, along with his “Curse of the Starving Class” and “Buried Child,” this exciting, violent, darkly humorous play was a finalist for the 1983 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. Three years earlier, Shepard’s drama premiered in San Francisco, followed by its Off-Broadway opening at the Public Theater. In 1982 Steppenwolf produced the play, starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich, which helped put this Chicago-based ensemble company on the map. Shepard became instrumental in transferring Steppenwolf’s production to New York for another successful Off-Broadway run. The play eventually made it to Broadway in 2000, where it was produced by Circle in the Square and nominated for the Tony.
James Yost’s new production at Theater Wit is filled with two hours of raw emotion, tension laced with sudden bursts of unexpected humor. Staged on Greg Pinsoneault’s three-quarter thrust set, the California desert home, that Austin is housesitting for his mother, extends toward the audience. By staging the play in this manner, Yost is able to bring theatergoers directly into the sparsely-furnished kitchen. Dominated by some 1980’s appliances, appropriate counter space and a table supporting a portable typewriter, we discover Austin hard at work on his latest screenplay. He’s hoping that Saul, a studio producer, will be interested in his “period piece” movie.
Lee bursts onto the scene, disturbing Austin’s concentration and reigniting the old rivalries between these two very different brothers. The room fills with stress, competition and outright hostility. This is the brothers’ first reunion, after a five-year separation. Their sibling rivalry is palpable and, to break the tension, Austin tries to persuade Lee to leave so that he’ll be able to discuss business with Saul without any interruptions. Austin even agrees to loan Lee his car, knowing full well that his degenerate brother will use it to commit petty robbery in the neighborhood. In the middle of their business meeting, Lee returns home with a stolen TV, and the tension begins to ratchet up to a new and unexpected level.
Kevin Viol and Joseph Wiens are both excellent as Austin and Lee. Lee is animal-like, desperate and acts instinctively on impulse. Austin is more cerebral, creative, organized, an employed man, with a wife and family. The chemistry between these two actors is intense, especially as their reunion progresses and the motives and boundaries of their characters begin to blur. As Austin slowly becomes more feral and Lee begins to show an unexpected serious side, we begin to see Shepard’s intent to show two sides of the same individual in these diverse characters. The two actors’ ability to drive this play, in two hours of well-articulated dialogue, while swilling liquor and pummeling each other to submission, is a tribute to their commitment. As Austin and Lee, both Viol and Wiens are terrific.
The other characters, in what’s basically a two-hander, are portrayed by the talented Rob Frankel, as Saul, and Rebecca Jordan, as Mom. Both bring authenticity and some much-appreciated humor to these interesting, somewhat quirky individuals. Frankel, who has more stage time, is particularly good at creating the smarmy, wheeler-dealer movie producer. Between spinning his idea for a script, and schmoozing the producer about golf, Saul fails to notice how easily Lee is duping him. Ms. Jordan is the portrait of a parent who long ago lost control of her offspring. Arriving home unexpectedly to find her kitchen demolished, and discovering her two grown boys again waging war with one another, the woman simply sinks into shock. Both actors bring balance and a touch of humanity to Shepard’s play.
Besides Yost’s expert direction, credit goes to Christina Gorman for her realistic fight choreography. She makes the violence quite believable, which is difficult given the close proximity to the audience. And Clara Wendland must be commended for her diligence, stocking a kitchen filled with props that get smashed and strewn about the stage at every performance.
This American classic is being given a fine revival by one of Chicago’s most consistently competent storefront theatre companies. While it’s often difficult to witness the bitter angst, antagonism and pain in this story, Shepard’s play never-the-less remains a brilliant study in the duality between siblings or within an individual. The subtle way these two men morph into one another provides this unique drama with the necessary psychological tension. And, in this portrait of sibling rivalry gone berserk, we’re left with one fascinating and thought-provoking evening of theatre.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 8-October 22 by Shattered Globe Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-975-8150 or by going to www.theaterwit.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.