Lucky for me and for the patrons who saw it, a strong production of Sam Shepard's 1980 favorite "True West" capped my recent weeklong stay as a critic/guest of the Shreveport Regional Arts Council. Sharply directed by Blayne Weaver for the River City Repertory Theatre, the play is one of Shepard's best and most popular, a dark-hued tragicomedy about realities and myths of the American West as they play themselves out in a disintegrating family living in the once wide-open spaces east of Los Angeles.
Actors from Tommy Lee Jones early on, to John Malkovich and Gary Sinise at Steppenwolf in Chicago, to Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly on Broadway have been drawn to this richly written script about a pair of battling brothers who may also be two sides of the same divided psyche. Weaver cast a pair of Shreveport-trained actors in the juicy roles— Youree McBride as the alcoholic desert-rat Lee just in from the Mojave for a little petty larceny and Logan Sledge as Lee's far more conventional brother, the screenwriter Austin. The site of the characters' classic love-hate battle is, naturally, their mother's kitchen.
When the lights come up on the opening scene, Austin's at his typewriter and just-arrived Lee is crouched nearby, drinking beer. Mom has gone to Alaska for a mysterious adventure; Austin is housesitting her plants. Here, in one of the sprawling suburbs fanning out toward the desert, the writer also seeks the peace he needs to finish a screenplay that could make his career. Lee's unannounced arrival could destroy all that – and does.
In mainstream terms, Lee's a failure and Austin a success. But on another level – and Shepard's gritty, poetic writing has many – Lee and Austin are two sides of the archetypal American male: insider and outsider, culturally interdependent. Steadily drinking, Lee claims that he could be just like the Ivy League-educated Austin: "I'll just turn myself inside out. I could be just like you then, huh? Sittin' around dreamin' stuff up.Getting paid to dream."
Against all odds, he makes good on the boast when he cons Austin's producer friend, Saul Kimmer (Shawn Dion), into making his freshly minted, nonsensical outline of a cowboy chase story into a Hollywood film: Brother Austin just has to write it for him.
When Saul dumps Austin's long-planned historical film in favor of Lee's Western fantasy, Austin sheds his husband-and-father identity and tries to prove himself Lee's kind of guy. Austin gets drunk, ransacks the neighborhood and steals a dozen toasters before pleading with Lee to teach him how to be the rugged individualist living wild as he imagines his brother does. Meanwhile Lee has destroyed the uncooperative typewriter with Saul's golf clubs.
Director Weaver deftly paces the comic bits and the intensifying action, and Sledge, without being recessive, subtly portrays Austin in the early scenes as a kind and sensitive guy. At Saturday night's performance, however, McBride's Lee started off murderously angry, his long-distance stares and sudden eruptions into fury suggesting the mood swings of mental illness, not the steady slow-burn of frustration and sibling rivalry gone berserk.
As the brothers' dynamic changes and they gradually undergo a role reversal, McBride did become more and more believable. And in one memorable scene about the brothers' hopelessly lost father, the two actors gave Shepard's amazing writing that mix of horror and hilarity, and the resonant, near-mythic dimension that has made the play an American classic that gave birth to Irish and African-American progeny – Martin McDonagh's "Lonesome West" and Suzan-Lori Parks' "Topdog/Underdog."
Sledge and McBride brought a scary realism to the Cain-and-Abel battle that destroys their mother's tidy, now toast-strewn, kitchen (spot-on set by Jim Hayes). Just as persuasive was the strangling struggle that brings McBride's Lee to red-faced near-suffocation. Actor Candance Higginbotham was miscast in the small role of their suburban mother who unexpectedly arrives home, and with wide-eyed cluelessness and deep denial sincerely tells her sons: "He won't kill you, he's your brother."
In one of the most telling speeches in any of his plays, Shepard closes the first act with Lee's description of the adventure story he wants to write. "So they take off after each other, straight into an endless black prairie. The sun is just comin' down and they can feel the night on their backs. What they don't know is that each one of them is afraid, see. Each one separately thinks that he's the only one that's afraid. And they keep ridin' like that, straight into the night. Not knowing."
Both addled and brilliant, Lee's speech sums up his trite movie plot and Shepard's sly play: "And the one who's chasin' doesn't know where the other one is taking him. And the one who's being chased doesn't know where he's going."
River City Rep's production nailed the playwright's skepticism about chasing that old American dream, especially of a vanishing West that may never have existed at all. Despite weaker performances in the minor roles, the show at the Bossier Art Council's theater space was impressively staged by Shreveport-spawned talent realizing a different dream of creating a professional theater back home.
Anne Marie Welsh is a West Coast arts writer who was the staff dance and theater critic for the San Diego Union and San Diego Union-Tribune for 25 years.
Membership in THE LEAGUE is being offered to individuals and couples interested in supporting the theatre company. The mission of The League is to provide support for the theatre and develop a core of volunteers to assist in projects and fundraising events essential for the company’s future.
Membership is open to the general public. Annual membership opportunities:
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The Shreveport Regional Arts Council recently announced that River City Repertory Theatre, along with 12 other regional arts organizations, will be receiving funding from a federal stimulus package through the National Endowment for the Arts for the restoration and preservation of jobs through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA).
This program is part of President Obama's effort to stimulate the economy and preserve jobs. Funds from this grant will allow jobs and salaries to be maintained which may have been lost due to the recent economic downturn. This is the first NEA grant that has been awarded to River City Rep.
River City Repertory Theatre is financially supported by The Community Foundation of Shreveport/ Bossier-Carolyn W. & Charles T. Beaird Donor Advised Fund. The funding provides support for the theatre's purchasing of technical equipment.
As River City Rep moves toward having a permanent
home in downtown Shreveport, the theatre company is actively pursuing purchasing the technical equipment the company will need for future productions in its new space.
River City Repertory Theatre is the recipient of two Louisiana Division of the Arts/Decentralized Arts Funding grants for the 2009-10 theatre season. The funds from the LDOA/DAF grants were used to produce MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS which was a participant in the EYE-20 CREATIVE CORRIDOR’s “ TRIUMPH OVER TRAGEDY” project and will be additionally used throughout the season to financially assist artistic salaries and benefits.
Louisiana Division of the Arts/Decentralized Arts Funding grants provide operating funds for non-profit arts organizations that are seeking to expand operations and also to produce specific projects. The state grants provide support to arts organizations that have made an impact locally, statewide, regionally and nationally or internationally.