Sibling Rivalry and Male Ego Converge in ‘True West’

A war between siblings unearths the rotten underbelly of male ego and its generational reverberations in True West, Sam Shepard’s dark comedy. It runs through February 16 at Seattle Rep. 

 

Sibling rivalry becomes something elemental, primal — even mystical — in Sam Shepard’s True West.

The playwright and actor’s rich career is full of askew glances at American masculinity, but in True West, one of his most popular plays, the result isn’t exactly myth deconstruction. It’s more like myth transmogrification.

The archetypes — domineering, devil-may-care older brother and timid, accommodating younger brother — are plenty sturdy. Until they aren’t anymore. It’s tough to pinpoint just when the lines start to blur in True West, but all of a sudden, the relationship has become much more malleable, disintegrating from its previous form more abruptly than the kitchen set — a prim, homey space exactingly defined by Shepard’s script, then systematically demolished.

True West is a prototypical actor’s showcase, and some of its most legendary productions have featured outsized, expressive performers jockeying in the lead roles: Gary Sinise and John Malkovich at Steppenwolf or Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly, alternating parts in the Broadway premiere. Last year’s Broadway revival featured Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano, casting that more obviously draws a physical and emotional distinction, though Dano’s circumspect performance style is often accompanied by an undercurrent of boiling rage.

In Seattle Repertory Theatre’s generally enjoyable production, directed by artistic director Braden Abraham, there’s a mismatch. Kevin Anderson commands the stage as ne’er-do-well older brother Lee, a petty criminal who’s just emerged from a sojourn in the desert and inserted himself back into his younger brother’s life for the first time in five years. That’s Austin (Zachary Ray Sherman), a screenwriter who hoped to get some concentrated writing time while housesitting in suburban Southern California for his mother, who’s on a trip to Alaska.

Anderson, in a ponytail and trench coat, prowls the length of the kitchen like a hungry cougar, swilling the can of Budweiser that’s permanently affixed to his hand and toying with his baby brother. He intimidates with a smile. His laughter feels like a warning. But there are moments when the bluster vanishes and we see the pathetic fuck-up who can’t find the phone number for a onetime girlfriend or look his mother (Lori Larsen, perfectly shell-shocked in her one scene) straight in the eye.

By contrast, Sherman’s performance as Austin has a pleading helplessness it never quite shakes, even as Lee’s transgressions move from minor annoyances to genuine harm, derailing Austin’s agreement with a producer (Brandon J. Simmons, in a just-thick-enough slice of superciliousness) for a script he’s been working on. Austin’s eventual turn toward the darker side of his psyche simply feels like a way to continue to placate Lee, and the shifting power structure in the brothers’ relationship doesn’t jolt as violently as it could.

Still, this is a Shepard play, defined as much by its dramatic durability as its probing oddness. In the Rep’s production, the heightened but loosely funny dialogue sings. The physical decay of Tim Mackabee’s set and Deborah Trout’s costumes is a perverse thrill. And even an imperfectly realized war between siblings unearths plenty of the rotten underbelly of male ego and its generational reverberations.


True West runs through 2/16 at Seattle Repertory Theatre at Seattle Center/Lower Queen Anne. Tickets up to $88, available here. Accessibility notes: restrooms nearest the main theatre are gendered and multi-stall; additional restrooms (near the Leo K.) are gender-neutral and multi-stall; and one single-stall, gender-neutral restroom is hidden away near the main theatre (you might need to ask the house manager for directions). Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible, and assisted hearing devices are available; see physical accessibility info here. Financial accessibility: remaining pay-what-you-choose performances are 2/9, 2/11-13 (see info here); and discounted rush tickets usually available at the door.

Dusty Somers is a lifelong Seattleite whose love of the arts has resulted in a distressingly large physical media collection. Right about now, he’s probably watching a movie, seeing a play or listening to a record. He has covered theatre for City ArtsThe Seattle Times, and NWTheatre.