Sam Shepard's True West is the best play, if not the best work in any of the literary arts, ever written about life in Southern California. That's not just because the play is set in a suburban neighborhood some 40 miles east of Los Angeles, or because Mojave Desert dust coats the action, or because the wasteland's coyotes call the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains home. But it's also because the play's schizophrenic quality gets to the heart of what it's like to live here, the psychic toll we pay when 13 million of us cram onto a piece of earth that isn't designed to sustain one-third that many.
Endemic rootlessness, the constant drive for reinvention, industrial-based illusion, family breakdown, the lack of relation to the land—Shepard's two main characters terrifyingly embody the theses of doomsday sociologists and apocalyptic writers like Mike Davis. The difference between those writers and Shepard is that he's also wickedly funny, a characteristic Sledgehammer Theatre's fairly awesome production of True West illuminates brilliantly.
The carnage that unfolds in this play wherever it is produced is always riveting, but rarely is it as funny as it seems here. Director Scott Feldsher opts for a hyperkinetic, organic approach that ranks among the most visceral I've seen in a very long time. In our worst moments, we all tend to slow down on the street to rubberneck at the bodies under the coroner's sheets; this time, we get to watch them get there, and we have a great time doing it.
Shepard's 1980 play is deceptively simple. Austin (Jeffrey Jones), a middle-class screenwriter with a wife and kids in northern California, is watching his mom's suburban home as she vacations in Alaska. His brother, Lee (Bruce McKenzie in an absolutely awe-inspiring performance)—a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed drifter and petty thief—blows into the house, fresh from his latest round of pit-bull fights somewhere in the Mojave. Austin wants to be left alone to work on his screenplay; Lee is casing the neighborhood to see what he can steal. The brothers have an uneasy relationship with each other and with their unseen father, a toothless alcoholic wasting away in "some other desert."
The appearance of Saul Kimmer, a cheesy Hollywood producer (played smarmy and very, very funny by Phil Johnson) signals the play's weakening grip on reality. Through a ridiculous chain of events involving a hopelessly contrived screenplay idea and a lost bet on a game of golf, Saul tells Austin to help his brother develop a screenplay. The brothers' roles are now reversed: the uneducated Lee is desperately trying to write a synopsis, while Ivy Leaguer Austin is gulping Cutty Sark and dreaming of hitting the open road to find dear old dad.
Many productions of True West get hung up on Shepard's compelling ideas—the psychic battle between warring halves of the same human soul. That's great stuff to talk and think and write about, but it rarely plays well onstage. Feldsher's physical approach makes his production funnier and, strangely, even more disturbing. The brothers seem like a couple of attention-deficit punks locked in mom's kitchen one hot summer afternoon, or a couple of tomcats clawing at each other in a dirty litter box. They piss in the kitchen sink, drive each other's heads through walls, and smash beer cans into the sides of their faces.
The physicality is so raw that it threatens to overshadow the ideas—as when Austin iron maidens his brother's chest with the refrigerator door. But it all works. By play's end, when the stage is littered with toasters (which were stolen during a drunken predawn spree) and the remnants of Mom's kitchen (after Austin rages, unable to find a pencil to write down a number of some skank in Bakersfield), the audience is nearly as exhausted as the actors must be.
Lee is the most riveting character on the page and in this production. McKenzie's performance is absolutely fearless. He works his body like a porn star, writhing, grimacing and bending. He makes outrageous choices, draws humor out of such apparently staid lines as "She's a botanist," showcases a putting game that would make Mark O'Meara proud, and has developed an eerie laugh that sounds like a coyote choking on a yucca. Yet at the same time, there's an erratic but painfully felt emotion at work, such as when Austin one-ups Lee with the knowledge that their father had lost his false teeth. This is news to Lee; he's supposed to be the one tight with Dad, and McKenzie reacts to this news as if he has just been punched in the gut.
Johnson gets the more unforgiving character of Austin. He's asked to transform over the course of the play from his brother's opposite to his twin. Johnson gets there by play's end, but he begins rather flat. That will probably be corrected through this run; I can't imagine any actor not feeling slightly tentative when he's sharing the stage with a volcano.
But the highest commendation for director Feldsher is that his rather nonconceptual approach allows Shepard's play to be as comical and substantive—as conceptual—as it truly is. That is quite an achievement, particularly considering Feldsher's track record. He's a highly conceptual, avant-gardish director, but he displays remarkable restraint in this effort, focusing on his ensemble rather than driving home the big issues of Shepard's play.
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Yet those issues remain. There are three main themes in True West: the duality of human nature, the battle within the creative process between rationality and intuition, and what the authentic West really is. Shepard shoehorns these dense themes into the personalities of the two brothers. Austin is rationality; Lee is imagination. Austin is confinement; Lee is freedom. Austin is smog and freeways; Lee is Joshua trees and rattlesnakes. Austin is Ivy League and pedigreed Dalmatians; Lee is trailer parks and pit bulls. Austin is Prozac; Lee is methamphetamine.
Although the brothers are polar opposites, neither one wins. Austin's responsibility and middle-class dream is seen to be as ephemeral and foolish as Lee's drifting and adventurous lifestyle. The conflict in True West is unresolved, ending with the characters frozen in tableau, facing off in an uneasy, quite indelicate balance.
It's hard not to take that final image and attach it to the title of the play. Each of these characters has undergone too much to embrace either the harsh truth of life in the desert or the soft truth of the suburban underbelly. Each wants a little of the other; each is unable to accept it. In the end, both are trapped in the uneasy, soul-sucking quagmire of the Southern California West, that broad, empty space between moonlit canyons and mini-malls, dry riverbeds and obscenely lush golf courses, unsatisfying reality and empty dream. The characters' mutually assured stasis provokes a fatalistic vision, as if in the end, all that will remain of what we've turned the West into is the choking Santa Anas blowing over the bones of everything that used to be.
True West at the Sledgehammer Theatre, 1620 Sixth Ave., San Diego, (619) 544-1484. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through July 5. $15-$20.