Sam Shepard's contemporary classic True West is set in 1980 "in a Southern California suburb, about 40 miles east of Los Angeles." By my Thomas Guide, that about bull's-eyes Fontana, which Mike Davis, in his great book about LA and its environs, City of Quartz, calls "the junkyard of dreams." Shepard himself grew up in Duarte, just north of West Covina—but Duarte, West Covina, Fontana: hey, it's pretty much all one junkyard, ain't it? And as Neil Young said (and as the guitar player sang in one of the tasteful interludes between this play's nine scenes), everybody knows this is nowhere.
According to Lee, one of two brothers around whom the play revolves, SoCal suburbs like the one he grew up in aren't "built up": "wiped out is more like it," he says. "I don't even hardly recognize it."
Lee and his brother, Austin, have returned to their childhood home—Austin to water his mother's plants while she's away on vacation and to work on a screenplay, Lee to burglarize the locals. Their father's a pathetic drunken dreamer living his last lost years in the desert somewhere, their mother a long-gone pharmaceutical case good for nothing alive but her spiky ficuses. Lee and Austin are a little Cain and Abel, a little Happy and Biff Loman, a little James and Edmund Tyrone: degenerate and straight-arrow, Id and Superego warring with each other and trying to conjure something true out of a western past that has promised everything that was once whispered to Jay Gatsby but has, frankly, given them well-nigh nothing. The play's so American it might have been written by Bruce Springsteen, if he only had a brother. (Incidentally, get his new album: 52-year-old rock stars can still change your life a little bit.)
The production is almost entirely marvelous. Joel Beers (full disclosure: he's the beret-sporting theater critic for this paper) directs, and what he does beautifully serves the text of the play (which explicitly implores directors, in the introductory notes, not to unduly fuck, conceptually, with the material). Beers lets the central relationship between Lee and Austin develop out of the words themselves, not fussing with stage business too much and trusting the material to hammer home the play's obsessive concerns with violence, the absurd constriction of suburban life, the fantasticality of American dreaming. The carefully staged blackouts between scenes—and the guitar interludes, which include snippets by Woody Guthrie, Dylan and others (played unobtrusively by Dave Clucas)—terrifically serve the play's intentions.
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And, man, did Beers strike gold with Patrick Gwaltney, who plays Lee. Gwaltney's got a little bit of the real thing, an actor who loves acting and is honest about it, a guy who tries to squeeze every bit of stage time of its dramatic potential without getting histrionic about it, who has terrific comic resources, who, with his oily, straggly blond hair, crazed eyes and mesomorphic build, has considerable physical presence (you're always ready for him to get violent) yet who you know is thinking onstage.
Shepard's play, as classic as it is, has problems—mainly a second act that veers toward predictability, especially in its okay-okay-I-get-it climax. And I think Beers can work with his other actors to overcome Shepard's somewhat threadbare and not-always-believable characterizations. But that's quibbling. Beers' production is a deeply satisfying realization of Shepard's script.
Beers and I cross paths a couple of times a year, it seems like: I don't know the guy, but it's nice—it's a relief, to tell the truth—to tip my hat at this particular crossroads. He and his company, particularly the fiery Gwaltney, have done genuinely good work.
True West at Stages Theater, 400 E. Commonwealth, Fullerton, (714) 525-4484. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Through Sept. 8. $15.