Steppenwolf Revives Shepard’s Classic Story of Sibling Rivalry

true-west-2When I think of sibling rivalry, the 1962 thriller classic ‘What Ever Happened To Baby Jane’ comes to my mind. The American thriller starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford about a bitter former child star who spends her days tormenting her sister, who was in a wheelchair. Whatever Happened To Baby Jane can easily be considered one of the greatest sibling rivalry movies ever made of fighting, hatred, jealousy, and competition!

Then there’s the epic tale of two brothers noble Mufasa and the skulking Scar in Disney’ The Lion King. This musical drama details another form of sibling rivalry, where the consequences of uncle Scar jealousy results in Mufasa’s death and Simba’s exile.

Sam Shepard taps into the vicious sibling rivalry with his family of trilogies called ‘True West.’ Many believe True West is part of a quintet featuring, Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child, Fool for Love, A Lie of the Mind. Many of Shepard stories deal with the tragedies; True West seems to be the sister story of Fool for Love, written by Shepard. Both deal with people where time, distance, and the history of their relationship caused a volatile outcome. However, where Fool for Love dealt with former lovers; True West deals with two brothers entangled with jealousy.

true-west-4-1True West premiered on July 1980 in San Francisco at the Magic Theatre where Shepard was a resident playwright. The character study focused on two sparring brothers, who were not on good terms with one another starring Peter Coyote (Austin) and Jim Haynie (Lee).

Steppenwolf revives Shepard’s play ‘True West,’ where a typewriter, a set of golf clubs, and the overwhelming desire to live in the desert takes center stage. Forty miles east of Los Angeles, we meet Austin and Lee. Two brothers who haven’t seen each other in five years reunited at their mother’s house.

Austin (Jon Michael Hill) is a successful screenwriter and a family man who is house-sitting for his mother while she is in Alaska. Sitting in her kitchen, Austin is working on a new screenplay, which he hopes gets him his big break in Hollywood. His older brother Lee (Namir Smallwood) a nomadic drifter who lives in the desert continuously tries to distract him with crazy questions. This leads to a bitter sibling rivalry, where both brothers discuss their envy.

Many screen actors have coveted Shepard’s True West. In December of 1980, Tommy Lee Jones and Peter Boyle took on the roles as Austin and Lee. Two years later in 1982, the play hit the stage at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago featuring unknown actors and co-founder of Steppenwolf, Gary Sinise and alumnus John Malkovich.

true-west-6Malkovich portrayal of Lee set the tone for Steppenwolf and Chicago style- theater with a golf iron tapping on the eyeglasses of Sinise’s Austin character. Who knew this iconic moment would change an entire generation of theater and lives of Malkovich and Sinise. I remember speaking to Hedy Weiss at the press conference, and she remembered seeing Malkovich and Sinise performance of True West. She told us that after seeing the play, she felt both would-be stars. Kudos to Hedy.

The lead roles of Shepard’s signature piece, True West have been performed by a variety of actors including Jim Belushi, Erik Estrada, Gary Cole, Dennis Quaid, and Randy Quaid.

True West burst on the theater scene at Steppenwolf thirty-seven years ago, and now the legendary story has been revived! Directed by ensemble member Randall Arney who was an understudy in the original production, he also played a supporting character when the play moved to the Apollo Theater. Arney brings to the play, a pair of fresh eyes and a new generation of actors bringing the audacious plot of Shepard’s broadly appealing work to another level; being funny and scary at the same time.

Adding to the variety of actors are two talented African American ensemble members Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood. Hill is known for his role in Passover and Smallwood in BLKS; both performed at Steppenwolf. These two leading men attacked their characters vigorously while keeping you engaged with naturalistic humor, the truth of a dual nature conflict and competitiveness. Hill as the uptight condescending Austin and Smallwood as the disheveled Lee make a perfect pair of odd brothers with a lot of tension looming for a series of nine scenes.

true-west-9Jacqueline Williams, another African-American, played the role of the mother of Austin and Lee. Willaims weird behavior of a mother who seemed oblivious to the unkempt appearance of her home; walked through the mess only to question why her flowers weren’t watered. She even showed no reactions or emotions when her sons were fighting to the death; which made most within the audience somewhat bewildered.

Francis Guinan, who has appeared in more than 30 Steppenwolf productions reprises the role of Saul. Thirty-seven years ago, Saul was up and coming; now aged, former successful man with several successful shows. Guinan, always seen to capture any role he plays, and his performance is Saul was stellar as usual.

Kudos to Steppenwolf for reviving this legendary play, keeping it fresh and new, however, the ending felt a little disconnected when the mother came home. There was no real connection with her and her sons.

Let’s Play “Recommend” that you partake in this funny, and menacing play at Steppenwolf where you will find yourself immersed in Shepard’s genius way of thinking.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company Presents

True West

By Sam Shepard

Directed by Ensemble Member Randall Arney

Now Playing Through August 25

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