Sam Shepard is a great writer. With 50 published plays and a Pulitzer Prize under his belt there is no disputing that. His characters are never run of the mill—they are usually damaged in some way. The situations are often outlandish, but require the most realistic of acting to pull off successfully.
True West is the story of two brothers leading parallel lives. Lee (Stuart Hughes) is a hard living, alcoholic drifter and petty thief who has just returned from spending months out in the desert fighting a prized pit bull and escaping reality. His brother Austin (Mike Ross) is a square by comparison and seems to be living an idyllic life. He is a family man and has what appears to be a successful writing career. He is working on a screenplay while looking after his mother’s home while she is cruising to Alaska. Lee shows up at the house unexpectedly and Austin convinces him to stay out of his hair because he has arranged an important meeting with the influential Hollywood producer Saul Kimmer (Ari Cohen), who has expressed interest in Austin’s new script.
Lee promises to stay out of the way but then promptly shows up at the end of their meeting and decides to pitch his own idea. That evening, he writes a lame treatment of a clichéd screenplay idea. The next day, Lee wins a bet with Saul and suddenly his script is going to be made, while his brother’s idea is shelved. Austin becomes desperate and drunk and suddenly Lee seems to have the upper hand. As the play continues, the brothers gradually transform into one another—they are basically two sides of the same person.
Hughes has a great, meaty role to play and he does well. His work is very specific with his physicality and vocal choices and there is certainly a detailed performance on show. What was missing was witnessing someone who was truly unhinged, someone downright terrifying. The audience should be at the edge of their seats wondering what his character is going to do next but it all seemed a bit too in control.
Ross’s character is the polar opposite of Austin at the top of the play. He is composed, calm and in control. He is the counter balance to Lee’s insanity. Ross gives a solid performance playing the straight man to Hughes’ outlandish character choices. I didn’t quite buy his drunk scene and at times he didn’t seem to be as affected by Lee as would have made sense.
Hughes and Ross have a great chemistry and perform well together. These are skilled actors showing off their chops.
Ari Cohen is hilarious in the role of Saul Kimmer. He plays the perfect sleazy douchebag of a producer. He made big character choices but it was never too much. Cohen is just a wonderfully likable performer. Patricia Hamilton rounds out the cast playing the role of the mother of the two men.
Ken MacDonald’s set is fantastic, a spacious kitchen with saloon like swinging doors that allows Lee to begin the play looking like a true cowboy. Real water runs in the kitchen sink, real coffee is made while real bread is toasted and it all gives it an authentic vibe. These types of details are nothing new in theater but I always appreciate when realistic elements are brought into a production.
Nancy Palk has put together a solid staging of a classic play. True West is enjoyable but I longed for it be a few notches better. All the elements were there but the play just never seems to get explosive enough. A little messier and a little scarier and it would have been perfection.
True West is on stage now at Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Distillery Historic District for tickets visit: Soulpepper