For more than 45 years, Sam Shepard has been a name to conjure with in theatre; but, despite the Pulitzer Prize he won for Buried Child in 1979, only a handful of his works have entered the standard repertoire. The early ones have mostly not aged well; the writings of the last quarter century mostly lack a visceral punch; but Shepard’s middle-period plays stand beside the best American theatre has to offer.
Of these, True West (1980) has proved the most produced and most popular, for good reason: it’s short, sharp, frequently hilarious, powerfully felt and just as unnerving as you’d like a thought-provoking play to be. Shepard’s autobiographically based obsession with dysfunctional families — stories of siblings estranged if not paralyzed by a distant or absent, feckless, violent, alcoholic father — gets explored with almost surgical precision, and in this instance provides two male roles so juicy they made stars of John Malkovich and Gary Sinise in the 1982 revival, and snared John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman for a 2000 run on Broadway.
In other words, True West is worth seeing, or seeing again, especially when it’s mounted as well as it is in its present incarnation at North Carolina Stage Company. From set and sound design and even props, which are critical, to the performances of local stars Charles Flynn-McIver and Scott Treadway, this is a bang-up production that well deserves the advance ticket sales and near-capacity attendance it’s already attracted to its extended run. The direction by Angie Flynn-McIver is also excellent, as are the secondary performances by Lance Ball and Kay Galvin.
The first act, in particular, is brilliant, both as written and rendered. Here we meet Austin (Scott Treadway), a reasonably successful, married screenwriter who’s house-sitting for his vacationing mother, the better to concentrate on the project he hopes will be his breakthrough; and Lee (Charles Flynn-McIver), Austin’s older brother, for whom the term “ne’er-do-well” hardly covers the territory: Lee is a drifter and a thief who breaks in on the peace Austin seeks with no intention of causing anything but trouble.
From the get-go, it’s clear little love’s lost between these brothers, one college-educated and mild-mannered, the other ill-if-at-all-educated and menacing. They’ve both been damaged by their upbringing, but Austin has managed to construct a perfectly reasonable life for himself as Lee has not, and Lee is plainly profoundly resentful and contemptuous of the middle-class privileges Austin’s earned.
Simultaneously, Lee is a proud man, dishonest in the technical sense, yes, but resourceful and self-reliant, convinced that he’s more authentic than Austin, since he’s a rugged individualist at home in the world of deserts and horses and danger — the true West — while Austin, as Lee perceives him, is complacent, compliant, conforming, perfectly suited to the phony West of Hollywood and its movies. All Austin wants is the quiet in which to work on the love story he’s about to sell to producer Saul Kimmer (Lance Ball). All Lee wants is the keys to Austin’s car, so he can go out and ransack his mother’s easy-pickings neighborhood.
Austin finally lets Lee have his car in return for Lee’s promise to stay away while Austin meets with Saul to seal the deal. All goes seriously awry when Lee barges in on the meeting and quickly takes it over, pitching Saul a story of his own: an action-packed Western, complete with a horse chase across the desert. Soon, the brothers are locked into an unlikely, doomed collaboration; just as quickly, they suffer a role reversal, each attempting to be the other he, manifestly, is not.
Flynn-McIver and Treadway have teamed frequently before, and are well-known and much-appreciated as a light-comic duo. In True West, they make us laugh, but they also explore dark recesses that may surprise those most familiar with their more farcical romps at Flat Rock Playhouse. Each delivers masterfully in the early going, with Flynn-McIver fully inhabiting a frightening, manipulative boor and Treadway bringing great restraint and subtlety to his portrayal of a thoughtful, decent man. Ball does well, too, by Saul, making a believable, rounded human being out of Shepard’s caricature of a greedy, golf-playing Hollywood producer.
The show goes less well when it reaches an infamous scene involving a typewriter and toasters, despite abundant laughs. At this point, Austin’s impossibly drunk, and Treadway plays this too broadly, draining the tension and leaving McIver’s newly humbled Lee without a sufficiently strong foil. With the unexpectedly early return of Mother (Kay Galvin), Shepard’s script loses its believability and edge. Galvin does what she can, but this is a thankless, puzzling part.
Happily, both script and production regain their footing in the surprising, disturbing final moments. Audiences won’t be disappointed.
True West, by Sam Shepard. Directed by Angie Flynn-McIver. Set design by Rob Bowen. Lighting design by W. Erik McDaniel. Costume Design by Deborah Austin. Sound design by Jason Waggoner. Props design by Stacie Worrell. Production Stage Manager: Connie M. Silver. With Charles McIver (Lee), Scott Treadway (Austin), Saul Kimmer (Lance Ball), and Kay Galvin (Mother). Performances through March 13. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Saturday matinee at 2 p.m. More at www.ncstage.org.