Review | “True West” at Steppenwolf

Review | “True West” at Steppenwolf

Pictured (L to R) Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood | Photo by Michael Brosilow

by Josh Flanders

After more than 35 years, Sam Shepard’s seminal play “True West” returns to Steppenwolf Theatre directed by Randall Arney. Confrontational and fierce, its gritty tone and honest, no-holds-barred portrayal helped define Chicago theater. In 1982 it propelled the fledgling theater to national notoriety for their production starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise which, after debuting in Chicago, they successfully staged in New York. 

“True West” is an explosive depiction of two brothers, at times both violent and funny, who reunite after several years, reigniting a life-long enmity. An educated family man, Austin (Jon Michael Hill) is ambitiously working on a screenplay while housesitting for his mother. His brother Lee (Namir Smallwood) is an unhinged drifter and thief living in the desert whose presence creates an enormous amount of tension. These brothers do not get along and their animus is immediately apparent.

Lee incessantly picks at Austin who is writing a script to share with a big-time Hollywood producer, Saul Kimmer, played by Francis Guinan who is reprising his 1982 role. Lee convinces Saul he has a great story as well, one that “rings true,” and Saul takes the bait. Only, he needs his brother Austin to do the typing and actually write it. 

Each of these brothers admires the other in some way, wanting to prove themselves, even as they rip into each other. Shepard provides a scathing critique of Hollywood both in the character of Saul, an opportunist, and in how each brother approaches truth in their work — one a seasoned writer who knows the biz and the other convinced of the authenticity of his story. Lee’s screenplay idea, of two men chasing each other, not really knowing where they are going, is a metaphor for the two brothers. Eventually, their roles reverse as Lee obsesses about getting his idea produced and Austin pines for a life in the desert like his brother, away from his family and society. Shepard explores the American urge to escape to a more primal place in nature in the backdrop of the mythos of the West. 

Their mom (Jacqueline Williams) makes a brief and muted appearance towards the end to witness the devolving relationship between the brothers as the play dips towards the unreal. Her distance and aloof behavior contrast the rough grounded violence of the two men who end up face to face like the coyotes howling in the distance. Richard Woodbury’s sound design adds a Western flavor of Southern California desert and Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design brings a homey 1980s feel to Mom’s house, at once dated and strangely familiar. 

This new production of “True West” pays homage to the original while bringing a new energy and direction. Casting Black actors as Austin, Lee, and Mom provides a fresh perspective and works wonderfully within the context of the play, broadening its impact. Austin warning Lee that he will stand out in the neighborhood carries a heavier implication. And the brothers’ interactions with Saul the producer, the one white character, shed new light on his exploitative nature as he awkwardly tries to ingratiate himself with them. 

This new production of “True West” is powerful, impactful, and not to miss. Especially if it is another 35 plus years for them to stage it again. 

Through Aug. 25. More info at www.steppenwolf.org

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