‘True West’ at Theatre Exile

The yin and yang of the artistic process

True West has been described as an American classic. At least half of this definition is true. Which one depends on your view of Sam Shepard as a dramatist.

Sibling rivalry: Brian Osborne (left) and Jeb Kreager

True West is a typical Shepard rendition of Californian Americans before the great invasion from the East. There’s plenty of blond hair, a drunken absentee father, and a wifty unimportant mom. Shepard does a good presentation of this subclass, but I would hardly describe this as representational of the country or the West.

Theatre Exile, out of all the Philadelphia troupes, is probably best equipped to handle Shepard’s quirky dialogue, messy stage (in typical Shepard fashion, it’s destroyed before the end of the saga), and anemic characters devoid of any passion but whiskey-induced rage. This troupe attracts actors who are more than capable of evoking the nuances needed to indicated a mood change without musical introductions.

If this play remains a staple into the new millennium it is because of Shepard’s understanding of writers’ dilemmas, not his insight into American — or human — family dynamics.

Home sweet home

The story is one-dimensional. Two brothers, polar opposites, are cooped up at Mom’s place in a subdivision of Southern California sprawl. Matt Saunders has designed a set evoking the LA exurbian landscape and the desperate separation of lifestyle and emotions, skillfully using yellow as both a background color and mood enhancer.

The younger brother, Austin (Jeb Kreager) is the sane, sensible, Ivy League-educated one, baby-sitting for Mom’s plants while she is off in Alaska; his house-crasher brother, Lee (Brian Osborne), fresh from a summer in the desert, seems to have appeared from nowhere as Austin is putting the finishing touches on a screenplay about true love.

Austin is as taut as the knot on a noose and Lee is as loose as the end of a lasso let go, but it doesn’t take long to realize that their personalities are the yin and the yang of creativity: the craft as portrayed by Austin and the imagination exuded by Lee.

Once this epiphany happens, we don’t care if character development takes second place to temper tantrums. We are, after all, dealing with one person here, Sam Shepard, and his angst about writing.

Making deals

Austin has set up a meeting with a freelance movie producer Saul (Joe Canuso), whose character basically serves only as a ploy to showcase the need for both personality types in the creation of a screenplay. Saul is not totally sold on Austin’s idea but agrees to take the script on spec. Then Lee gets involved and, after being held ransom to a golf game bet, Saul agrees to produce Lee’s unrefined concept, providing his brother Austin write the screenplay. Austin balks at the idea but is lured to help out because of the $300,000 advance.

Can the two brothers work together on a story line about a “true” Western with no plot or real ending? Can Lee and Austin save dad from himself with the money? Do we care? In the end, Mom returns, and the brothers are left to resolve their conflicts, with or without a visit to the desert. The audience is relieved.

Instead of the two-act originally written by Shepard, director Matt Pfeiffer cleverly constructed one 95-minute drama. The format enhances the flow of the story and moves it from a self-loathing tragedy to a mean-spirited comedy.


For another review, by Steve Cohen, click here.

Our readers respond

Carl Anderson

of Yeadon, PA on April 21, 2014

Atkins in fortunate in his [actually "her" -- ed.] inability to recognize the truth behind Shepard's insight into the extremes of family dynamics - and also a lesser critic as a result. The fact is that the bad seed and the good seed come from the same seed; siblings share too much DNA to be more (or less) than two sides of the same coin. Shepard had me terrified within the first five minutes precisely because I could see where the story was headed. Exile handled it wonderfully.

Jackie Atkins

of West Cape May, NJ on April 22, 2014

Carl Anderson, Your powers of observation need honing, either that or I need a new photo. As for True West, Cain and Abel it ain't but anyone familiar with Sam Shepard will know which way this drama is headed and to avoid the front row.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.