by Lynn on April 5, 2013

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto. Written by Sam Shepard. Directed by Nancy Palk. Designed by Ken MacDonald. Lighting by Graeme Thomson. Sound by Paul Humphrey. Starring: Ari Cohen, Patricia Hamilton, Stuart Hughes and Mike Ross.

Produced by Soulpepper Theatre Company. At the Young Centre until May 4.

American playwright Sam Shepard has been chronicling his country’s myths, stories and the rough characters he finds so compelling for more than 30 years. His 1980s play True West is a case in point.

It’s about two brothers: Lee is a hard on his luck, petty thief who hasn’t seen his brother Austin for five years. Austin is a screenwriter in Los Angeles on the verge of a big deal to sell one of his screenplays to a hot producer. Lee has been living in the desert for years and has resurfaced at his mother’s house only to find Austin there. He is house-sitting for his mother while she takes a trip to Alaska. Austin has assured her he will water her many luxurious plants.

He has scheduled a meeting at the house with a Hollywood producer, Saul Kimmer who has agreed to produce Austin’s period film about love. The catch is that Austin wants Lee out of the way for the interview and for the most part he is. But as luck would have it Lee comes back (with a stolen television) before the meeting is over.

Lee charms Saul. They agree to play golf the next day (a game one feels that Lee has never played). Lee feels this movie racket is simple. He has lots of stories. Lee gets Austin to tap out an outline of one of them—a western. One thing leads to another and Lee charms Saul further into doing a movie of his story and not that of Austin.

This doesn’t go down too well with Austin. Matters between the brothers deteriorate. The plants don’t get watered. Points of envy come out. Lee has always struggled and would like Austin’s good life. Austin would like to be free of family and obligations to go and live in the desert. He’s ready to leave it all if he can go and live in the desert with Lee.

True West has many of the hallmarks of a Sam Shepard play—the reference to the western the wild and woolly quintessential American pioneer story, a creeping sense of danger, the dissatisfaction of characters. But this play seems different. The whole story of Austin’s movie being shunted aside for Lee’s initially seems that yet again, Lee gets the better of his accommodating brother.

While Austin goes ballistic at the thought of losing his chance, the whole thing seems so farfetched as to be an obvious joke. But it isn’t. And when one puts this story of the vagaries of Hollywood against David Mamet’s lacerating play about Hollywood—Speed-the-Plow–then True West comes up short. )And one naturally does compare these plays). Austin looks stupid and naïve. If Shepard’s intention is to make Hollywood look silly, he missed. It’s been done better elsewhere.

I can get the sense that Lee wants his brother’s life, but not the other way around. I think it has a lot to do about the actors playing these roles. As Lee, Stuart Hughes exudes a winning charm and a quiet danger. He moves effortlessly through the many and various twists and turns of Lee’s personality and at every turn you believe him without question. Mike Ross, as Austin is a different matter. Ross is not a natural actor. He is a natural musician and in that regard he shines, but in acting, no. I find him limited and superficial at best. And while he always assumes a furrowed brow and knitted eyebrows to show angst or concern, acting and characterization goes considerably deeper than that. The pairing of Hughes and Ross is just unbalanced and for the production to work both actors must be of equal abilities and they aren’t.

At the end of the play Austin tries desperately and angrily to strangle Lee. They struggle for some time, each brother fighting with all his might—one to kill the other, the other to retaliate and survive. The play ends with each gasping at the effort. At the bow both actors come out. Hughes is smiling, relaxed, confident. Ross is still gasping for breath, brow furrowed, eyebrows knit. For one, acting is effortless and affecting; for the other it’s a struggle and not very convincing.

As Saul, Ari Cohen has that smoothness of a shark-producer. And as the mother, Patricia Hamilton beautifully conveys her horror, at her trashed kitchen and her dead plants, with just an open-mouthed stare. And she’s a wonderful actress. Director Nancy Palk has a keen eye for detail and nuance and it’s lovely to see such respect for the work.

The set and costumes are beautifully rendered by Ken MacDonald. That kitchen and it’s lush plants says everything about the Mom; and the costumes from the grungy jeans, boots and jacket of Lee, to the neat casual gear of Austin and the spiffy shirts and tailored clothes of Saul, say everything about the lives of all concerned.

While there are many things to commend with this of this production of True West, the play and the lopsided balance in the acting made it, on the whole, disappointing.

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