If you’ve been banging around the Chicago theatrosphere longer than 25 seconds, you know the myth of True West and how Sam Shepard’s bro-ly, brawly mano a mano tale helped the ragtag off-off-Loop Steppenwolf Theatre burst into public consciousness with its 1982 production starring Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, and Francis Guinan.
It was the first Steppenwolf show to go to New York, and it helped launch the fabled/cliched “muscular” school of Chicago theater, wherein sweaty working-class guys emoted until furniture broke and real blood ran. It was, for its time, revolutionary: Steppenwolf the bad-boy upstart Mozart playing against the august Goodman’s Haydn.
Revisiting the red-meat drama for the first time in 37 years is a suave marketing move, especially given Guinan’s return to the same role he played way back in the day. It also results in a production that’s impossible to take your eyes off.
As brothers with a lethal score to settle in a tale of biblical cowboy proportions, Namir Smallwood and Jon Michael Hill defy easy description. Suffice it to say that, if you missed Steppenwolf’s first coming, fret not. This announces its second.
It’s not that True West isn’t without significant problems. Shepard’s one female character behaves in a way so unlikely it feels like she must be overmedicated. Only a horse ton of valium could elicit a reaction of such calm in someone facing wanton invasion and destruction. There’s a missing offstage father who gets a better narrative. As for “Mom,” the magnificent Jacqueline Williams manages against all odds to instill the play’s only unnamed character with dignity.
That irksome caveat aside, Randall Arney’s production is a mesmerizing showcase for Hill, an ensemble member since 2007, and Smallwood, who joined a decade later. There is also a healthy dose of Guinan, who’s been with Steppenwolf for 40 years, as the shady Hollywood producer Saul Kimmer.
But make no mistake. This is Hill and Smallwood’s show. Their chemistry crackles like a live wire draped across the third rail. Even in their silences, you can sense the fuse scorching closer toward detonation.
True West is filled with references to the myth of the American west, right down to the cacti. It takes place as brothers Austin (Hill) and Lee (Smallwood) are holed up in their mother’s southwestern home. Austin is a successful, Ivy League-educated screenwriter with a wife, kids, and a mortgage. He even wears a tie while working at his typewriter in the kitchen.
Lee, by comparison, is the ragged renegade: aggressive, violent, hard-drinking, dubiously lawful, and viciously resentful of his brother. They are a late-1970s Western Cain and Abel, with Shepard even throwing in multiple references to the nearby town of Paradise lest the symbolism escape us.
The casting breathes new life into the script. Lee and Austin are both Black men in a rural western setting, around 40 years ago. When they talk about standing out like a “sore thumb” or getting “picked up” for merely walking around, there’s an ominousness that doesn’t exist when white men play the roles.
On a less somber but still culturally loaded note, Hill eviscerates the John Wayne mystique with his ridiculously accurate impression of the fake cowboy who embodied straight white macho privilege for far too many decades. His Al Jolson reference, meanwhile, contains the venom of a rattler.
As their time together lengthens, the brothers begin mirroring each other in mannerisms, dress, and drinking habits until they’ve merged into knife-blade refractions of each other. Hill and Smallwood make the tiniest gestures immensely telling, whole worlds being conveyed in the tug of a glove or fingers pinching the bridge of a nose. The authenticity is there in the operatic violence and shattering gestures as well, from Lee’s Shiva-worthy search for a writing instrument to Austin’s curdled disdain for his father.
Shepard’s mix of biblical and western themes is vivid as a clear day’s sunset, thanks in part to Steppenwolf’s lush design team. Ann G. Wrightson’s dusk-to-dawn lighting, the howling coyotes and maimed prey in Richard Woodbury’s sound design, and Todd Rosenthal’s home-and-desert set combine to romanticize the Great American West even as Ned Mochel’s bruising fight choreography tracks its destruction.
K. Todd Freeman was Steppenwolf’s sole African American ensemble member from 1993 until 2007, when the company added five artists of color (Hill among them). In the ensuing 12 years, the company has diversified further, both in its ensemble and its programming. In going back to the past with True West, Steppenwolf reveals a future that’s bright—and decidedly nonmonochromatic. v