Barebones Brings Sam Shepard’s “True West” to Life in a Stunning Production

Photo by Jeff Swensen (Gabriel King (left) and Patrick Jordan (right) in "True West" (Gabriel King (left) and Patrick Jordan (right) in “True West“
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We tend to think of the American West as director John Ford portrayed it: a vast, mysterious space as cosmic as the Egyptian desert, with the Rockies as our pyramids. The West is an ideal we all hold, a collective mythic dream, something verging on the spiritual the way our conception of patriotism verges on the spiritual. It’s not only our central tableau as Americans, it’s how the world sees us. We’re always heading west, seeking the west, trying to be faithful to our western spirit. And this quest — or the betrayal of it — is the essence of Sam Shepard’s brilliant 1980 work, “True West,” now being staged by Barebones Productions.

Barebones reinforces this Ford-​esque mythos on the show’s program cover: it’s a photograph of a two-​lane highway stretching into the infinity of a desert, with mountains pyramiding in the distance.

But the irony of this play that attempts to plumb the essence of the American psyche, is that it never leaves the kitchen of a suburban home 40 miles east of Los Angeles.

The story involves two brothers who come together after a long period of separation. The younger, Austin (Gabriel King) is a clean-​cut, budding Hollywood screenwriter, and Lee (Patrick Jordan), about a decade older, is a rootless bum. They try to work jointly on a movie script about the “real West” but soon come into conflict. It’s basically a retelling of the Cain and Abel story, except the role of God is played by a slick Hollywood producer named Saul (Randy Kovitz), sporting a turtleneck, tasseled loafers, and period-​correct Members Only jacket. (You’ll recognize a similar plot in many other works, such as in the 2002 film “Adaptation”).

Jordan also directs — albeit with the help of assistant director Melissa Martin — and appears to have found his true muse in Shepard, whose spare, gritty, theatrical-​vérité style is so well suited to Barebone’s strengths, you may wonder why the company would bother with any other writer. The results are stunning.

Shepard has rapidly evolved from “experimental” to “canonical” theatrical status. To quote Samuel Johnson, speaking of Shakespeare, in a sense he too “has long outlived his century, the term commonly fixed to test literary merit.” A major reason is that he’s not a didactic playwright: he leaves so much space for the actor that interpretation is essential; in fact, it’s what makes his plays seem so organic, even decades after they were written.

Shepard is often categorized as “surreal” because his characters seem to change unexpectedly, without the conventional signs of causality, but this is a superficial view. Shepard came out of The Open Theater in New York during the 1960s, which utilized what were called “transformation” exercises. Actors were asked to change roles or scenes abruptly to develop their flexibility, insight and ensemble coherence. It’s a strong characteristic of his mature plays and figures prominently in “True West,” where Austin (the writer) and Lee (the drifter) seem to metamorphosize into each other as the action evolves, based on the conceit that you always become what you despise. What Shepard really does in his plays is leverage the idea of the “absurd,” which offers much richer material for actors to explore, as well as for audiences to observe, because it is reactional in nature, not random.

True West” is a one-​act play divided into nine scenes. (To their credit, the directors divide it into two acts with an intermission, which gives the performance more of an arc). With a fixed set, and only four actors — the Mom (Heidi Mueller Smith) appears only briefly, at the end — the intensity can ratchet as high as the actors want, especially as Barebones performs in a black box theater where the space is small, focused, and there is no exit other than through the stage. In this show, Jordan is both actor and director simultaneously: you can see him feeding off the audience as if he’s judging how far he should go in certain key instances, such as when his character is swilling beers, smashing a typewriter with a golf club or slapping around his brother.

The opening scenes are relatively calm, with the brothers chatting in their mother’s kitchen, Austin typing out a script, and crickets chirping outside. The way King plays Austin, he’s so relaxed his voice comes out in a nasal drone. Jordan usually casts King in high-​strung, quirky roles, so in a way, he’s playing against type here.

Jordan’s on familiar ground as the dangerous outsider, Lee, but it feels like Shepard has given him permission to go farther than he perhaps ever has. He’s really pounding those cans of beer on stage — I lost count around five, while many more are poured on heads and bodies — and yet, as Lee gets drunker, and his actions more violent, Jordan becomes sharper, his reactions more acute. It’s as if his character is really coming into its true self, losing the false skin of propriety, like a demon molting its scales.

Even if you know the play, you still have no idea what will happen between Austin and Lee — their chemistry is that dynamic.

And yet they can pull back at times and create a mutual caesura, as in the little story Austin tells Lee about their father losing his teeth in a Chinese restaurant in Mexico. It’s masterful — like a little play within the play — and makes their mutual loss of humanity all the more tragic after they come so close to touching it.

Randy Kovitz is a wonderfully unctuous Saul with his Robert Evans-​style hair and suntan. He avoids the temptation to overplay the role, letting the dialogue and wardrobe do their work. Kovitz also designed the fight scenes which are integral to the success of the show and come off vividly.

As Mom, Heidi Mueller Smith appears in the final scene in a metaphoric role, dressed in white and fresh from Alaska, which serves as a counterpoint to the desert-​like “hell” which Austin and Lee are descending into. By the time she arrives, her home has been trashed by her sons and is so hot with violence that it reeks of beer, sweat and the odor of things burning (look at the detritus on the floor and you’ll notice charred pages of script that have accumulated between scenes). It’s tough for her to get up to the energy level that’s been generated — she’s like an ice cube thrown into a pot of boiling water.

Tony Ferrieri’s set inhabits the theater like a character itself. It changes drastically over the course of the play, evolving from the pristine domain of Mom, to the maelstrom of Austin and Lee’s tortured minds by the end. Ferrieri is a master of casual precision: the linoleum floor, braided rugs, and rose-​colored walls — lined with china plates and wicker baskets — look like a Dick and Jane book from the 1970s.

Rikkilee Rose as prop master has a way with theatrical objects like my vet has a way with cats. She does a phenomenal job of coordinating the hundreds of moving parts that enable the mechanics of this drama to succeed (you will never see as many working toasters on one stage again).

For this playwright who is finicky about his technical directions, sound designer Dave Bjornson and lighting designer Andrew Ostrowski give “True West” the authenticity that the script demands. They create an ethereal mood conjuring the crickets, coyotes and shadows that lurk just beyond the curtained windows.

The stage directions at the beginning of the final scene indicate that the set should “be like a desert junkyard at high noon,” and indeed it is, the actors sweating, pouring beer over each other like desperate animals trying to cool themselves. It’s hard to avoid the “hell” symbolism: Barebones offers not just visual cues, but olfactory as well. An acrid smell permeates the theater: I’ve seen many productions achieve this with smoke, but the synchronicity of the location in Braddock — literally across the street from a steel mill spewing sulfur dioxide — with a play evoking the scent of damnation is sublime. Which is just one more reason that this is probably the most unique production of “True West” you will ever see. It’s like watching “The Wizard of Oz” performed next to a poppy field.

It certainly is absurd that such an iconic play about the American West transpires entirely in a suburban kitchen, but the West has always been an ideal, an act of imagination. Just as Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 “Stalker” is considered one of the most iconic films of science fiction, yet there is no science fiction in it, other than in the minds of the characters.

This production of “True West” is one of the strongest plays that I’ve ever reviewed, and one of the most stimulating nights of theater I’ve ever enjoyed.

“True West” runs through September 29, 2019 at Barebones Black Box, 1211 Braddock Avenue, Braddock, Pa. For tickets, visit www​.bare​bone​spro​duc​tions​.org or call 18887184253 opt. 1.

Stuart Sheppard

Stuart Sheppard is a novelist, critic, and management consultant. Follow him: @HamletsMachine

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