Playwrights have long known that the heart of human drama is in the family, where inherited or misplaced roles and expectations often collide.
Sam Shepard's play True West, staged by Studio Players, is a tale of two brothers at odds with each other and themselves.
Set in Southern California in 1981, the play opens with younger brother Austin poised at a typewriter in his mother's suburban home. Tidily dressed in a collared shirt and sweater, he is the well-kempt writer. Enter Lee, by contrast a rough-around-the-edges vagabond. White T-shirt, jeans and a rogue swagger define this drifter. That and a constant beer in his hand.
Meeting for the first time in years, perhaps in their adult lives, the two greet each other warily but politely, like strangers. It doesn't take long, however, for cracks to appear in the veneer of manners.
Before too long, deep-seated suspicions and jealousies begin to erupt, the implications of which reach their full potency in the second act.
Director Eric Seale, along with actors Timothy Hull (as Austin) and Bob Singleton (as Lee), deserve praise for their ability to create layers of relational nuance among equally nuanced characters.
Psychologically intimate, vacillating between intensity and humor, Studio's production of True West is a captivating, well-wrought production with something to offer a variety of artistic palettes.
Some in the audience at Thursday's opening-night performance, for instance, seemed drawn primarily to the play's humor, laughing eagerly at Shepard's many clever lines and comedic situations. Others seemed entranced by the underlying drama. Still others, including myself, loved the tug and pull between the light and dark elements of the script, a balancing act that Seale and company pull off with aplomb. Shepard is at his best when the two exist simultaneously, as are Hull and Singleton.
As the pair seesaw from enemies to allies, events unfold that bring the brothers to the heart of their conflict. They each resent and admire something about the other.
When Lee uses his hustling skills to charm a bigwig studio producer to bankroll his "story" and turn it into a feature film with a famous actress in the lead, Austin, perceiving himself the legitimate screenwriter of the family, feels his role and worth threatened. He lashes out, refusing to collaborate with Lee on the script even though Austin stands to profit handsomely from cooperating.
Later, when Lee is futilely pecking away at the typewriter, he realizes that he needs Austin to finish the script, but Austin, unhinged, gets drunk and goes on a toaster-stealing spree through the suburban neighborhood to show that he can be a thief and hustler like his older brother.
As their identities clash and eventually morph, each into the other, the evening devolves into more and more drinking and truth-telling, building to the play's violent finale.
Seale's direction particularly excels in realistically intuiting the natural ebb and flow of brotherly banter. Tensions rise and then get batted down by a joke, passive-aggressive digs turn into raging battles before fleeting moments of what, among men, passes for tenderness and a brief reprieve.
Emotionally charged and psychologically fascinating, True West provides a satisfying and revelatory evening of theater.