All families have their issues, but for brothers Austin and Lee, it's not your run-of-the-mill sibling rivalry, as seen in Sam Shepard’s 1980 play True West at 4th Wall Theatre Company this September. The brothers' competitiveness is reminiscent of the elusive "American Dream" and its toll on individuals and family relationships.
Emotionally abandoned by an alcoholic father, Austin seeks success with an Ivy League degree and conventional New England family. But he longs to be a screenwriter, seeking both artistic and financial success. Lee, his older brother, also seeks something, but isn’t exactly sure what, as he struggles with being overshadowed by Austin’s diligence and economic advancements. Lee lacks education and finesse, retreating to the desert and breaking conventional rules. He is a thief, but clever and fearless, and romanticizes his social rejection. All three figures echo the frustration of trying to fulfill the demands of being "successful" that are often leveled on American men.
The minute you see Lee’s cigarette glowing in the darkened set of 4th Wall Theatre Company (formerly Stark Naked Theatre Company), you know something is up. Drake Simpson, who plays the slovenly (yet smarter than he looks) Lee, dominates the stage in every way. He's coarse. He's a bully. He's a beer-drinking smoker. He's an amateur criminal who is jealous of his brother Austin’s success. He's also impossible to ignore.
Simpson's performance keeps the audience on edge, not only by his physical presence and devil-may-care attitude, but also by his mercurial and demanding temperament. Life has given him the short end of the proverbial stick, and his bitterness mixed with humor and desperation make him a memorable character with insecurities that are palpable and understandable. One cannot help but compare it Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day—both caveats against buying too heavily into the idea that one can completely conquer the difficult terrain of a capitalistic culture. Playing Lee is a challenging enterprise, and Simpson excels, not only with his believable manipulation and exasperation, but also with the physical demands of his part, ranging from committing violence against a typewriter with a golf club to physical conflicts with his brother.
Austin, who is deftly played by Nick Farco, progresses with the play. At first he is stereotypically annoyed with Lee, who dismisses his screenwriting dreams by saying, “There’s no future in it.” Eventually, Farco perfectly embodies the hysteria to do something more exciting, even if it's as banal as stealing toasters. His transformation from the stable and successful son to abandoning everything for his art is mirrored by the disintegration of the neat suburban kitchen at the beginning of the play to its disarray with its dead plants, strewn papers and dirty Tupperware—a testament to the disorder that Lee has brought to his life.
Philip Lehl, co-artistic director of 4th Wall Theatre Company along with Kim Tobin-Lehl, who directs, plays Saul Kimmer with aplomb, oozing with confidence as the Hollywood producer who can make or break the screenwriting dreams of Austin and Lee. He represents membership into the creative class—those who “know how things work”—and has the connections that might catapult Austin to artistic success and Lee to financial relief. Lee interloping into Austin’s dream of making a film serve as one of the biggest conflicts in the play, forcing an awkward and contentious interdependency between the two brothers.
Lehl’s performance makes it look easy, and instead of watching a play, you feel like you're eavesdropping on a producer meeting with potential writers, and the calmer he becomes, the more anxious the audience gets for the tenuous fates of Austin and Lee. Lee’s ability to “play the game” (and not just golf) surprises Austin, who's always underestimated his younger brother’s intelligence, and forces him to work with his brother in their desperate attempts to produce a film that will advance not just themselves, but somehow rescue their ruined father, who literally and figuratively has no teeth. Lee in particular wants to help his father and get him out of his financial pit in a move that resurrects the story idea of a strong and reliable man, who doesn’t buckle in the face of misfortune, drink and bad decisions. Lee wants to rewrite that very sad script, and we don’t blame him.
Houston audiences are fortunate to see such an important play in an intimate setting, one which works well with the themes of limitation that Shepard wants viewers to notice: Not only is the “West” over, but it's been replaced by a nervous commercialism that can never be “true.” As Lehl notes, the play may be seen “as a portrait of the writer, always at odds with himself, the restless drifter fighting with the disciplined mind struggling to give birth to art, and perhaps the battle between art and business itself in the Hollywood machine.”
With the suburban house setting and superlative lighting design by Kevin Rigdon, the audience feels the psychological claustrophobia of suburbia and all it represents, juxtaposed with the call of the wild, with its monotonous crickets and crying coyotes serving as objective sound correlatives for the wildness both within and without. Shepard lets us know that nature can be maddening, reminding us of wildness and freedoms that may be impossible to find anymore. Lee has spent time in the desert, but Shepard is careful to make clear that you don’t need a desert to visit your own desert places. There is no escaping to a “True West” anymore.
An essential play that comments on everything from the difference between artistic and commercial success to the disappearance of the “Wild West” in both literal and psychological American landscapes, True West is a can’t-miss elegy for romanticism: Not only for the creative process unaltered by capitalism, but also for the romantic notion that our families might be with us, not against us. It might not be true, but Shepard reminds us that it's necessary to think so.
True West runs through September 30 at Spring Street Studios. 1824 Spring St., Studio 101. 832-786-1849. 4thwalltheatreco.com