Adam Rapp is no stranger to Actors Theatre of Louisville. Several of his plays have made their world premieres at the Humana Festival of New American Plays (the most recent, “The Edge of Our Bodies,” opened in 2011), debut productions which Rapp has also directed. In fact, his directing career has focused on new plays, but when artistic director Les Waters invited him to direct a production of Sam Shepard’s 1980 play “True West” this season, he took the challenge.
“True West” is a dark comedy about two brothers who rekindle their volatile relationship after an estrangement. Austin is a well-educated screenwriter, while Lee is a drifter and a thief. They reconnect when Lee shows up at their mother’s house, where Austin is housesitting and working on a script. The production opens Thursday in the Bingham Theatre and runs through December 9.
We spoke with Rapp about his relationship to Shepard’s work, his perspectives on sibling rivalry (Rapp’s brother is actor Anthony Rapp), ghost characters in Shepard’s plays and more.
On Shepard’s influence:
It is intimidating. [Shepard has] had such an influence on my early career. I didn’t get trained in the theater at all, I had nothing to do with the theater until I was 23 or 24, I started getting exposed to it in New York. So I bought a bunch of plays when I started getting excited by it. I read “Buried Child,” “True West,” “Fool for Love,” “Curse of the Starving Class,” even “Red Cross” and those earlier plays that are wilder and more fractured narratives, and I was completely taken with his work.
I’m from Illinois, he lived in Illinois for a little bit, and there’s something about his characters and what they can’t say, and the volatility and the romanticism that I really related to. I think he was the gateway for me into the theater in a lot of ways.
It was incredibly intimidating at first when Les approached me about it. I’ve also never done any kind of period piece, other than something I wrote, which was a 1953 play. I’m so busy doing my own work and other people’s work that’s new writing, to tackle a frozen text was intimidating because there’s no work on the text, so there’s a frozen aspect to it that’s been really freeing. The idea of taking on something of his was scary, but I’m having a blast.
Rapp on humor and violence in Shepard’s story:
It’s such a beautifully structured play, with all the visceral and muscular stuff that happens in the play, and it ends in the first move toward a homicide between brothers, in this very Cain and Abel archetypal setup, but what precedes that is very funny and incredibly heartbreaking as well.
There’s this legacy of drinking and violence and this lost father that gets talked about and there’s this transfer of violence in the play. It’s about this very intense broken family. When you read the play on the page it’s funnier and it feels more structurally sound than it is depressing and tough, and then when you get into the room with the actors and you’re discussing the history of the family and the relationships and the actual circumstances of the play, you realize how incredibly bleak and sad it is in some ways.
So it’s been a fun challenge to find the balance between the comic and the antic in it and the pathos in it.
We’re trying to go full cylinder on all of it. The fight is going to be one of the most brutal, insane fights I think that anyone’s ever seen in the theater, and I’m really excited about that. The actors are incredibly brave, and we have a great fight choreographer, Rick Sordelet, who’s like a master. It’s going to be intense, it’s going to be like a bear pit at the end.
On the Bingham Theatre and fighting in the round:
We’re setting it behind plexiglass, so it’s like the play is set in a terrarium. I wanted to give the actors the ability to be as free and as visceral in the round so they can slam up against walls and not worry about the audience. It’s almost like in a cage or almost like in an incubator. In a strange way it’s like seeing some kind of strange science experiment or surgery theater.
When you’re in the round and there are no walls, you’re fake-fighting, you’re having to be careful and not run as fast and you’re not going head-long into things. We wanted to give them full bore, so there’s going to be lots of use of the plexiglass in fun ways. You’ll see blood, and you’ll see faces smashed up against it, and things will be thrown, which will feel like they’re being thrown at the audience and they’ll smash up against the glass. It’s not a conceptual idea, it’s more of a way to free them so they can let Shepherd’s world wring through their hands.
On sibling relationships and the rehearsal process:
It was hitting a lot of nerves for all of us who were reading and discussing and communing with the play. My brother and I are very close in some ways and in some ways we’re very, very, very different. He was raised doing musical theater and I was raised as a jock. I was very troubled and he was the breadwinner for the family for a little while. I’m three and a half years older than him but everybody thinks he’s older than me. I was always like three steps behind him in a lot of ways. I was in and out of reform school when I was in fifth grade, and I went to a military academy, and my brother was doing musical theater, so there are a lot of crazy differences between us. I was a jock, he’s never touched a basketball in his life. There was a culture that was so different between us, and yet we lived in the same room, and yet we ate breakfast together. I think I was very, very jealous of him as a kid and the attention he got and his success and all that. We’re friends now, but there’s something, something’s always loaded. And now that we’re both in the theater, it’s strange. We don’t really work together, but he comes and sees my work and he’s been incredibly supportive.
I got involved in the theater because I was watching a thing he was directing as a very, very young man. He was directing something at 19, he was directing ‘The Bald Soprano.” I had just moved to New York and I was observing, and it was the reason why I think I started getting curious about theater because of him.
I thought initially that theater was “The King and I” and “Evita” and those musicals that he did, I didn’t know there was a John Guare and a Sam Shepard and a Nicky Silver and Marsha Norman and Carol Churchill and Edward Bond. I didn’t know plays could be about, you know, the O’Neill plays, for instance, I didn’t really know those. So it’s been really fascinating being here and working on the play, seeing “Long Day’s Journey,” there’s that amazing speech that Jamie has to Edmund in I think it’s act three where he says “you have to stay away from me because I’ll probably destroy you, and the best advice I can give you is to stay as far away from me as possible, although I love you.” It’s such a complex thing and so it’s such a brave thing to articulate that for brothers on stage, and it’s such a true thing that I think all of us have felt with our families.
And so yeah, the play is, I think the reason why it has such power is Shepard really did unflinchingly go at this thing of what it is to be a sibling in a really, really intense way. There’s so much intense grifting going on between them in the play. One of them is basically trying to steal the other one’s life and almost pulls it off. The other one wants the other one’s life. He wants to live in the desert and he’s been a screenwriter in LA and wants to give that all up, he wants a life of authenticity. The other one wants to find his way back into the modern world, and they come to loggerheads.
There’s a scene four speech on how they both have different relationships with their father. It’s told by Austin when he goes to visit his father who lives in another desert. He leaves his false teeth in a doggie bag of chop suey after he went to Mexico to get his false teeth fixed, and had to hitchhike there as an older man. You see what’s lost between them and the death of their family in some way, and you also see the different relationships they have to their father.
It’s some of the most powerful, beautiful writing that I’ve ever encountered. That scene in the end of scene four when they’re just talking about that, to me, that’s the sort of thesis of the play. You can’t choose your family and you’re lucky if you get along and it’s a battle, it’s always going to be a battle, and at the end, it’s a battle. I would be doing the play a disservice if I didn’t really try to find those moments truthfully between the brothers and if I leaned away from the drama and the intensity and leaned more toward the comedy. I think there’s a deep wound in the play and we’re going there in a really real way and I’m very excited about it.
On Austin’s and Lee’s father and the lure of the “ghost character”:
In some ways I think it’s one of his most complete father characters, and he’s never on stage. But because he exists in our mind and we connect archetypally to our own fathers, and it’s delineated so beautifully and articulated by both Lee and Austin by what they say about him, and then you see this legacy of alcoholism and this legacy of violence they’ve both inherited, it’s in their DNA, it’s almost like the absent character that has some of the most force in the play.
I love the father in “Buried Child” and I love the father in “The Late Henry Moss,” I think those are all great characters, but in some ways because he’s withholding the image in this play, we do so much work as an audience to construct who the father is, and so we invest our own imaginative life into it. And so it has this incredible power in the play, for me, and I think for those working on it, and I hope the audience will do that work. I think he’s done a beautiful job. It’s like the great painters who leave enough space for the eye to construct the image that isn’t there, he’s working on that level.