Actors Theatre of Louisville opened Sam Shepard’s “True West” last night. Directed by Obie Award-winning playwright and director Adam Rapp (“Finer Noble Gases,” “The Edge of Our Bodies,”), “True West” is a viciously funny and tragic portrayal of two brothers testing the boundaries of love, resentment and civilization.
Shepard is one of American theater’s most intense and emotionally ferocious playwrights, and as a playwright and director, Rapp is unflinchingly brave and unlikely to pull punches. This production follows through on that promise—the actors start out tense and go full-tilt to feral, and the result is utterly engrossing, raw and ultimately sympathetic. The production runs an hour and 40 minutes with no intermission, a wise choice because the tension and momentum are allowed to build forcefully to the savage denouement without a break.
Ivy League-educated Austin (Nate Miller) is house-sitting for his vacationing mother (Emily McDonnell) while working on the screenplay that will save his career. Out of nowhere, older brother Lee (William Apps) crashes Austin’s sanctuary and begins to unravel Austin’s long-practiced self-control. Lee is a drifter, a thief and a heavy drinker, and in the first scene it’s hard to imagine the two are brothers. By the end, they are clearly cut from the same cloth, less Cain and Abel than shadow selves, determined to strangle the life out of either the better or worse part of their shared nature.
Both Apps and Miller turn in powerful, brutal performances as they slowly strip their characters down to bare animal bones by the end of the show. Those who saw Miller earlier in the season as the irrepressible Mercutio in “Romeo and Juliet” will especially enjoy how Austin begins the play, moving with a practiced wariness around Apps, who is nothing short of a wild man from the first line.
As the play unfolds, with Lee pitching his own screenplay idea to Austin’s producer Saul (Connor Barrett) and winning, we see Lee’s natural charisma rise and his appeal to Austin as a man who charts his own destiny and takes what he wants becomes dangerously apparent. And when Saul decides that Austin’s own project hinges on his willingness to write Lee’s true-life Western, Austin becomes undone as Lee attempts to pull himself together, and the real blurring between selves begins.
Looking at artistic director Les Waters’ artistic programming so far reveals some common threads beyond “love,” which Waters declared the theme of the season. Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” and “True West” are all family tragedies with the adult children suffering the after-effects of a lifetime of emotional neglect. And while the alcohol abuse that plays front and center in O’Neill’s and Shepard’s plays is not necessarily a main pillar of “Romeo and Juliet,” director Tony Speciale lifted it up in an indictment of a Verona where the party culture produces adults too enamored with image and good times to notice their children in distress.
This deliberate thematic through-line could be attributed to Waters’ academic background—he’s the former head of University of California San Diego’s graduate directing program, and ticket holders are getting the equivalent of a meaty, season-long seminar this year—and it could signal that future seasons will be compiled with an extra layer of curation beyond the expected quality and variety audiences have come to expect from Actors.
“True West” feels like the direct descendant of “Long Day’s Journey” that it is—the younger brother has the chance to escape the sucking hole of his family’s alcoholic burnout, while his older brother follows in dad’s tragic footsteps. In O’Neill’s play we see the entire family dynamic, while Shepard lasers in on the brothers, giving Austin and Lee the privacy to tear each other’s deep wounds apart.
Shepard renders “True West” in a realism far less heightened than its siblings “Buried Child” and “Curse of the Starving Class,” though the particular reality Shepard creates in the house is one that is still darkly comic and utterly heartbreaking. And though he can’t resist a surreal abundant object (shucked corn, artichokes), in “True West” the toasters that end up lining this stage are the result of a direct narrative cause-and-effect.
Scenic designer Andromache Chalfant enveloped the Bingham stage in plexiglass walls, which the audience can see through but not permeate. This is a practical move—Miller and Apps throw each other around with abandon, and the walls mean there’s no splatter or shove zone in the first two rows. But it also creates an atmosphere of confinement, and the actors’ voices sound slightly different, like the audience is intimately and clearly eavesdropping on a scene meant to be private. Christian Frederickson’s sound design incorporates the swell of epic cinematic scores, but the compositions are inflected with touches of dissonance that nod to the unresolved tensions on stage.
“True West” runs in the Bingham Theatre through December 9.