Funniest when it’s also at its most serious, Sam Shepard’s classic explores sibling rivalry and the dying West.
Dean Tuttle and Michael Kasulke as Lee and Austin. Image: Christopher Daw.
Competitive brothers Austin (Michael Kassulke) and Lee (Dean Tuttle) haven’t been in touch for five years, and now, like a couple of caged coyotes, they stare at each other over their mother’s (Susan Jordan) kitchen bench. Lee has been living ‘out in the desert’: exactly what that entails is left largely to our imagination, but it seems to be the place that men in their family go to recover when times are hard. Austin, by contrast, has struck a rich vein, selling scripts to Hollywood. He has a house and family up north, where it’s cool and calm. Mom has gone to Alaska on vacation, and Austin is using her pad as a base of operations to land his latest deal with producer Saul (Tony Barea). What follows is a fraught couple of hours that explore sibling rivalry, divided interiors, and the dying West, where cowboys chase each other meaninglessly and confusedly on the plains of the Panhandle through the long hot night.
True West was first produced in 1980. It was picked up by Steppenwolf Theatre in 1982 with Gary Sinise and John Malkovich in the leads, before being transferred to Off-Broadway, and it has enjoyed many revivals around the world since then. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1983. The playwright, Sam Shepard, who was also an Academy Award nominated actor, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1979 for Buried Child. He also won ten Obie Awards for his Off-Broadway work, writing 44 plays in total, along with novels, shorts stories, essays, and memoirs.
The intimate space at Limelight on Oxford works wonderfully for this piece, heightening the sense of claustrophobia that arises at this family reunion. The immense heat of L.A. is captured skilfully through Jacinta Frizelle’s lighting states and liberal dollops of perspiration created with the aid of the water sprayer for the pot plants. The lighting at other times helps to externalise the deep animosity that exists between the brothers. A musician sporting a trucker cap pulled down low plays solo distorted guitar, which builds a sense of menace, and enhances the feeling of place.
Kassulke is wonderful as the long suffering Austin; the self-assured brother, who makes a point of trying to help the other men in his family. Shepard’s roles allow actors to display their ‘range’, and Kassulke does so admirably here. Literary critic George Steiner has noted that if a tragic character were to call it quits before their downfall, as audience members we would feel bereft. In this way Kassulke leads us enjoyably through Austin’s downfall.
Tuttle captures the unruly and wild nature of Lee with seeming ease. He has a mercurial, dangerous presence which is a joy to watch. True West is funniest when it’s also at its most serious; the more intense Lee gets, the more frightening he becomes, but also the more absurd and humorous.
Barea captures the complexity of Hollywood producer Saul: yes, he’s primarily a numbers man, but he’s also an individual who trusts his instincts, and is earnestly seeking work which is true, and draws its inspiration from real life. Barea gives a very human portrayal of a complex character. Jordan portrays admirably the horror and confusion that Mom feels towards the antics of her sons, and the harrowing sense of isolation and fear that overcomes her while travelling.
The accent work is especially good in this show with credit to accent coach Paige Walker, which is yet another reason to catch this classic. Don’t miss your chance to see this affordable production of True West, which has fascinated audiences and critics for nearly forty years.
4 stars out of 5 ★★★★
by Sam Shepard
Director: Dimity Raftos
Cast: Tony Barea, Susan Jordan, Michael Kassulke and Dean Tuttle
Music and Sound: Chris Daw
Lighting: Jacinta Frizelle
Costumes: Kelly Sharpe
Fight Choreography: Kurtis Wakefield
Accent Coaching: Paige Walker
29 May-16 June 2019
Limelight on Oxford, Darlinghurst NSW