Sam Shepard is a master spelunker of the subterranean violence that haunts the American family, many of his plays revealing, and revelling in, the deeply-held desires and resentments that fuel dysfunction and conflict. In True West, the battle is between two brothers: Austin (Ken Barnett), the younger, is an up-and-coming screenwriter; Lee (David Mogentale), the elder, is a homeless, mentally unstable drunk who steals televisions for a living. The conflict has already been set in motion when the play begins: Lee has dropped in unexpectedly on Austin, who is housesitting for their mother at her home near Los Angeles while she vacations. Lee’s resentment of his younger brother’s Ivy-league education and material success is palpable and menacing; Austin, in turn, is clearly treading on eggshells in response his volatile older brother’s unpredictability. The main conflict in the play comes when Lee manages (via a gamble on the golf course) to sell a screenplay idea to Saul (Dan Shor), the Hollywood producer who has been working with Austin on a television series. Lee’s sudden success – and Saul’s insistence that Austin drop his own project and write Lee’s movie instead – turns the tables on the two men, leading to the upwelling of a whole new set of resentments and insecurities and to the chaotic destruction of the interior of their mother’s home (and to the plays’ famous, comic profusion of toasters and toast).
Such conflicts between brothers (or between fathers and sons), in the Shepardian world, are never resolved – indeed, they seem key to unlocking the yearnings and disappointments and deep rages he discovers when he plumbs the heart of a certain class and type of American male. I was in my twenties when Shepard was establishing himself as a major voice in the theater, and I found it difficult, back then, to connect with his work: there was, quite frankly, too much testosterone on stage for my taste. Encountering his work now I find it easier to look past what can feel like a frenzied, hyperviolent surface and see how poignantly and intelligently Shepard manages to capture the warring impulses, images, and myths that shaped, and continue to shape, ideas about masculinity in late capitalism. He shows the rugged individualism represented by the idea of the “West” – of hardscrabble, macho survival in hostile desert terrain – to be just as spiritually and psychologically bankrupt as the domesticated conformity represented by Hollywood and its soft, materialistic culturemongers. These boys can’t win; all they can do, as the final scene of the play makes clear, is continue to fight.
The production at the Pittsburgh Public is engaging and smart, with a detail-perfect seventies interior (scene design by Michael Schweikardt), a gorgeous lighting scheme (by John Lasiter) that brings both the peace and the menace of the surrounding desert into the space, and a sound design (Zach Moore) that simultaneously evokes the cliché and the real of the Western landscape. The performances in this production are uniformly strong and engaging, but in places not as fully rounded as they need to be to lend probability to the plot. Mogentale is utterly convincing as the off-kilter Lee, precisely observing not only the psychological capriciousness but also the physical tics and habits that characterize Lee’s total lack of boundaries – the nose-picking, armpit-scratching, and space-invading that all signal Lee’s inability (or is it refusal?) to conform to social expectations. But we never see the chameleon-like charm that has filled Lee’s wallet with the phone numbers of attractive women, or – even more crucially for the play’s plot – that would draw a Hollywood mogul out of bed at dawn to play a round of golf with him. His creepy off-balancedness is terrific, but it also works against the storytelling, as it’s hard to imagine a man like Saul being willing to spend more than five minutes with a person as aggressively obnoxious as Lee, let alone offer him a huge movie contract. Likewise, I would have liked to see more of Austin’s disenchantment and yearning earlier in the play; his high-stakes desire, in the second act, to test his skills in the desert seems to come out of nowhere (or, perhaps better put, merely out of drunkenness). It’s easy enough to see what’s missing from Lee’s life; the actor playing Austin has the harder job of revealing to us the emptiness at the core of his material and social success. His is, of course, the more crucial journey in the play, as the writer’s relationship to the myths that shape masculinity seems to be Shepard’s deepest area of scrutiny in the work.