THEATRE REVIEW: TRUE WEST
Pictured; Stuart Hughes, Mike Ross
JOHN COULBOURN, Special to TorSun
04 APRIL 2013
TORONTO - Stretching back as far as Cain and Abel, the mysterious bonds of brotherhood — that fusion of love and loathing unique to certain male siblings — have fascinated storytellers of all stripes. And while the petty grievances and jealousies at the heart of TRUE WEST might not lead to fratricide on a biblical scale, they come precariously close, as playwright Sam Shepard explores those bonds from a distinctly modern 1980’s perspective. After largely disappearing from main stages, Shepard’s work is once again in the spotlight after a successful Broadway revival of TRUE WEST — which has led in turn to a Soulpepper revival that opened Wednesday at the Young Centre.
Elder brother Lee, played by Stuart Hughes, has returned to the family home in suburban California for a re-charge, only to discover that his mother (played by Patricia Hamilton) has headed off to Alaska and left things in the care of younger brother Austin, played by Mike Ross. A clash, of course, is inevitable.
Lee touts his amoral values and the freedom that comes from living hand to mouth on the wrong side of the law, while Austin smugly cloaks himself in the respectability of being a family man, smug in his burgeoning success as a screenwriter. The two even lock horns over who is closer to their absent father, a drunk who crawled into a bottle and largely disappeared from their lives years ago. Their bickering comes to a head then boils over with the arrival of Saul Kimmer (Ari Cohen), a putative movie producer with whom Austin has been working. The ensuing battle proves, once again, the truth in the old axiom that it is much easier for someone to pull you down to their level than for you to pull him up to yours. It’s a bleak, blackly funny play that the cast, under the direction of Nancy Palk, tackles with more enthusiasm than finesse, leading to a production that puts more emphasis on the acting than on the story.
In the pivotal role of Lee, Hughes gives us a man not merely cracked, but broken — not the opportunistic hustler the script suggests, but rather a middle-aged derelict, already well on his way to being what his father was before him. Ross, meanwhile, never fully inhabits either Austin’s desperation to lift himself out of a past that both attracts and repels him nor the character’s deep need for his brother’s approval. Cohen’s Kimmer, meanwhile, is right out of sitcom central casting, while Hamilton seems to have wandered in from another play entirely.
And they all get scant help from Ken MacDonald’s set, seemingly more inspired by The Golden Girls than by the shabbier milieu the playwright describes, or from lighting designer Graeme Thomson, whose apparent attempts to end each scene with a freeze frame of sorts comes across merely as uncharacteristically sloppy work. TRUE WEST remains, however, a play worth seeing, even in a production that seems to veer off track too often.