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The Subtle Art of Sam Shepard
by Anthony Chase
True West at Kaleidoscope
Sam Shepard is known for plays like True West, Buried Child, and Fool for Love, in which impassioned but conflicted characters collide in scenes of raw confrontation. At the same time, a play like True West is downright Chekhovian in the way it reveals the subtleties of human relationships, while simultaneously demonstrating the inability of people to communicate with each other. As in Anton Chekhov’s plays, Shepard’s plays expose the stark essence of their characters while also revealing their lack of self-understanding.
The current Kaleidoscope Theatre Production of True West under the direction of Beth Gerardi-Wharton at Medaille College is fascinating for the way it presents the carefully structured dialogues of Shepard’s play, even while it glosses over many of the details. The production certainly emphasizes style over specificity, but still manages to deliver the essence of Shepard.
Here we meet brothers Austin and Lee. Theirs is a competitive relationship. Austin is an aspiring screenwriter; contemplative, clean-cut, and Ivy League. Lee is a petty criminal and a drifter. The play begins with the two men jockeying for position and advantage.
Christian Riso is Austin. Keith Wharton is Lee. Their initial interactions provide a case study for script analysis. In fact, a lesson in Shepard might help audiences navigate the hammer-and-tongs interactions of True West.
As the play begins, we hear only the sound of crickets. We see Austin working studiously at a kitchen table lit only by candlelight. Lee, who is drinking beer, has arrived at their mother’s home to find mom gone and Austin house-sitting. He feels put out, and investigates the situation by interrupting his brother’s work.
Lee: So mom took off for Alaska, huh?
Lee: Sort of left you in charge?
Already, Lee’s jealousy of his better-educated and more socially adjusted brother is apparent. Sensing his bother’s displeasure at finding him “in charge,” Austin apologetically responds:
“She knew I was coming down here, so she offered me the place.”
Appeased for the moment, Lee then considers what is involved in house sitting for their mother, challenging his cultured brother’s basic common sense.
Lee: Keeping the plants watered?
Lee: Keeping the sink clean? She don’t like a single tea leaf in that sink, you know.
Austin: Yeah, I know.
Lee has successfully found a vulnerability and put his brother on the defensive. Austin may be educated, but he lacks self-confidence and street sense. Lee’s battery of questions continues.
Austin tries to redirect the conversation, but stumbles into sensitive territory, first Lee’s supposed artistic aspirations, and eventually the issue of their father. We will later learn that Austin visited their father to help him financially, but that the old man used the money for booze. Lee bristles at the comparison between their two paternal visits.
Lee: You want an award? You want some kind of medal? You were down there. He told me all about you.
Austin: What he say?
Lee: Don’t worry. He told me. You don’t have to say nothing.
Austin: I wasn’t.
Lee: You were going to make something up. Something brilliant.
Austin has, finally, lost patience with his brother’s argumentativeness and asks:
“You gonna be down here long, Lee?”
The line provides a comic button to the sequence.
The scene will continue as Lee reveals that he plans to use their mother’s home as a base of operation for a burglary spree in her neighborhood. He even contemplates stealing from his own mother, and laments that she keeps her valuables under lock and key.
Interestingly, all the seeds for what is to follow are sewn in the very first scene. Each mini-confrontation takes three or four lines and needs to be clearly defined and articulated. Eventually, Shepard will build momentum by leading his characters into a series of stunning reversals. These, ultimately, are the meat of a Sam Shepard play.
In addition to Riso and Wharton, this production features two actors known for the detail of their character interpretations: Marc-Jon Filippone as a Hollywood producer, and Anne Hartley Pfhol, who makes a late entry as the boy’s mother, just about at the point we have forgotten she exists.
True West continues through February 11. Call 479-1587 for reservations.
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