Review: “True West”

Namir Smallwood (left) as Lee and Jon Michael Hill as Austin in True West. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

RECOMMENDED

Where: Steppenwolf
Downstairs Theatre,
1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through Aug. 25
Tickets: $20-$96
Phone: 312-335-1650

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

When Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s original production of Sam Shepard’s “True West” moved to New York in 1982, it put the storefront Chicago ensemble on the national theater map. In the 37 years since, that show has become the stuff of legend, and its lead actors, John Malkovich and Gary Sinise (who also directed), have become superstars, as has Laurie Metcalf, who played the small part of their mother.

But Steppenwolf has never revisited its historic triumph. Until now.

Far from being an exercise in nostalgia, the revival sheds new light on Shepard’s iconic Cain and Abel story while cannily connecting Steppenwolf’s past and present. The most obvious connections are physical. Francis Guinan, who played Hollywood producer Saul Kimmer the first time around is amazingly reprising the role, and Randall Arney, who briefly was Saul before the original moved to New York and was the ensemble’s artistic director for a number of years, returns to direct.

The biggest change is that the brothers who duke it out virtually to the death are portrayed by younger   members of the larger and more diverse ensemble. Jon Michael Hill is Austin, the straight-laced, university-educated younger sibling who has temporarily left his family “up north” and is trying to write what he hopes will be a career-making screenplay while house sitting for his Mom (Jacqueline Williams) who is on a trip to Alaska. Namir Smallwood tackles the Malkovich role of Lee, the ne’er do well who lived in the desert because he couldn’t deal with people and has returned to hit on Austin for…well, whatever, including the loan of his car to steal television sets from nearby houses.

The setting remains the same. The action takes place in Mom’s house (nicely designed by Todd Rosenthal with a solarium for her beloved, ill-fated plants) in a suburb 40 miles east of Los Angeles, which is rural enough that coyotes can be heard howling at night (sound design and music by Richard Woodbury). The time is late summer, 1980.

Interestingly, the time frame, which was more-or-less contemporary with the original production, now feels historical, which simultaneously makes the play more specific and more mythic. It’s also arguably funnier, as we watch Lee grapple with a manual typewriter that won’t work and try to get a telephone number from an operator (the phone is on the wall), then trash the house trying to find a pencil to write it down.

The combination of the time period and the casting also illuminates the script in new ways. When the brothers talk about standing out in the neighborhood—in the process of trying to rob houses—the fact that they’re now African American of necessity factors in, for example.

Shepard’s twist on Cain and Abel is that Lee and Austin effectively trade places, suggesting how thin the veneer of civilized behavior can be in the face of jealousy and fueled by booze. The catalyst is Saul,  who initially comes for a meeting with Austin to work out the details of his screenplay, only to be co-opted by Lee, who barges in accidentally on purpose, fast-talks Saul into a game of golf, and pushes his own idea for a movie about “real” truck-driving cowboys and their horses in the west.

Ridiculous as Lee’s idea is, he gets the upper hand by underhanded means, much to the irritation of Austin, who sees his own project going down the drain. Problem is, though, that Lee doesn’t have a clue how to write, so he uses every means he can – blackmail, intimidation, taunts, false promises – to get Austin to do it for him.

Guinan’s vain Saul, wig and all, is a delightful satire of a Hollywood type, but his main purpose is as a foil for the brothers. Smallwood’s Lee simultaneously mocks and manipulates this smug bureaucrat, and Hill’s Austin is palpably embarrassed by his brother’s machinations at first, only to be infuriated later on.

The complicated interaction of the pair is the heart of the matter, and Smallwood and Hill really make the characters their own. While Malkovich’s Lee was as ferocious and unpredictable as a wild animal who’d wandered in from the desert, Smallwood’s misfit in a long green trench coat is as wily and streetwise as a refugee from an urban jungle. Hill’s buttoned-down Austin in his orange cardigan (costumes by Trevor Bowen) starts out merely frustrated by his brother’s intrusion but comes into his frighteningly murderous own in the second act. This is when, thanks partly to Arney’s direction, we grasp how similar they are under the surface, something this production reinforces by showing hints of the love between them in the early scenes as well as the resentment and hate.

Williams’ brief appearance as Mom near the end is exceedingly droll, though it’s not entirely clear whether her deadpan demeanor is the result of shock or the fact that she’s inured to her sons’ behavior. She just keeps telling them not to fight in the house. 

When I first heard the Steppenwolf was going to remount “True West,” I wondered why. But judging by the result, it was a good choice.