America lost its most distinctive theater voice of the 1980s with the passing of Sam Shepard. But that voice still resonates through works like True West, getting a welcome return by Rep Stage at Howard Community College. Shepard’s plays are known for their undertone of foreboding as well as for their often-ticklish perspectives and surface pleasures. That is certainly the case with this 1983 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Director Vincent M. Lancisi at Rep Stage glides over the past grudges of the play’s two estranged brothers and focuses the action more on their humorous struggle for dominance. It’s a Cain and Abel story played out in a very small corner on the outskirts of Hollywood. At evening’s end one exits with the feeling of having witnessed a prolonged tussle aboard a runaway hot-air balloon.
The setting is a sleepy suburban L.A. ranch-style home complete with slat-curtains and a linoleum-floor kitchen. All of it is rendered so convincingly by Scenic Designer Nathaniel Sinnott that a theater usher is posted at intermission to stop the curious from wandering up to see what’s in the fridge.
Ostensibly the more stable of the two brothers, Austin, is house-sitting for his mother while she is away on vacation. But his plans for using the isolation of her home to finish writing his commissioned screenplay have been sidetracked by the arrival of his crude, almost sociopathic, older brother Lee.
The sense of sibling rivalry — or simmering rivalry, in this case — is ratcheted up when the barely literate Lee proves he is much better at navigating Hollywood’s treacherous rapids than the introspective Austin.
Lee ends up besting his brother with his own screenplay deal. But don’t count Austin out, as he soon will go about proving he can annoy the neighborhood with acts of petty larceny just as ably as big brother Lee.
Casting for these two role-reversing leads is ultimately what gives definition to any production of True West. Rep Stage has come up with two returning favorites in Daniel Corey and Tim Getman.
Daniel Corey imbues Austin with some of the comical timidity of a classic “second banana.” He fights back at first using only a passive-aggressive sarcasm, careful not to go too far. But that makes it all the more fun to watch him later when the worm turns.
Tim Getman is eloquent in using his body language to intimidate others and express his more elemental nature. When in doubt, pop open another can of brew and stand scratching your side a while. He knows how to keep his brother in place, though by this time he should know better just which buttons to push. Getman resorts to anger and physical menace so early in the play that it has the counterproductive effect of making him appear weak.
Both actors are experts at comic pacing, however, and they excel at all the physical shtick required of them. What we do not see enough of in this early stage of the run are psychological cues that persuade us they have a long history together as brothers.
James Whalen is just right as the oily independent film producer who folds up like a cheap card table at the first sitting of someone with more confidence. Rep’s own acting treasure, Valerie Lash, gets big laughs in the eleventh hour as the returning Mom who knows better than to try and make sense of such two dissimilar sons.
Rep Stage finishes out its season of mostly new plays with a reliable older one. If you’ve never seen True West, don’t miss out on this chance to laugh and savor one of Shepard’s most unexpected comedies.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, with one 10-minute intermission.
True West plays at Rep Stage through May 13, 2018, in the Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College — 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (443) 518-1500, or purchase them online.