Bowen Park Theatre Company
at the Jack Benny Center for the Arts
“So they take off after each other straight into an endless black prairie. . . . And the one who’s chasin’ doesn’t know where the other one is taking him. And the one who’s being chased doesn’t know where he’s going.”
The description is of two heroes in a cowboy movie, but it’s of the writer’s process too, at least as Sam Shepard sees it. In his 1980 True West, the playwright depicts the stormy symbiotic relationship between two California brothers: Austin, a well-groomed, well-educated writer trying to get ahead in the movie business, and Lee, a crazed, crooked drifter who’s just reentered Austin’s life (and their mother’s big lovely house) after living alone in the Mojave Desert. But underneath Shepard’s manic-depressive study of sibling rivalry and dependency is a look at the author’s own confused, compulsive identity–as an artist and a professional, as a counterculture rebel and a career-minded go-getter.
Austin, the younger brother, has settled into his mom’s manse while she’s off on vacation; he’s working on a screenplay for an encouraging but somewhat elusive producer, Saul Kimmer. Of his alcoholic father, who deserted the family and now lives alone in the wilderness, the less Austin hears the better. Along comes Lee, who’s very much like the old man–an incredible drain on Austin and given to spouting loony, barely coherent fantasies about the “true west.” Yet out of these visions comes the wild and woolly western story Saul’s been looking for. Austin’s project is put on the back burner, and Austin himself is pressed into service turning Lee’s flaky concept into a script.
As the two brothers gradually switch roles, Lee finds himself succumbing to the problems of making make-believe real–from creating dialogue for characters to getting the typewriter ribbon into the damn typewriter (the macho outlaw struggling with the tangled ribbon is a very funny bit). Austin, meanwhile, discovers a sort of salvation in his newfound fecklessness; his hopes for a movie career in shambles, he turns instead to Lee’s old trade of petty thievery and gets rip-roaring drunk to boot. But the exchange of identities is just one more variation on an endless struggle in which the two brothers–like the warring impulses of the playwright–are locked.
In the Bowen Park Theatre Company’s production of the work, dark, edgy John Pecora as Lee and fresh-faced, athletic Marty Yurek as Austin create very distinct individuals while conveying the inescapable biological and psychic bond that holds them together. While they’re both a bit young for their roles, and while they don’t register the potential for real violence that is needed, they effectively explore the shifting impulses of activity and passivity within and between them. Capable support comes from Joel Pownall as the deal-making Saul and Barbara Elam in the small but key role of the boys’ nonplussed mother. Besides guiding his well-knit ensemble, director Mark Heller also shows a good sense of timing in his use of the overlapping light and sound cues (the yapping of coyotes and chirping of crickets) that are so important to this intriguing play.