Steppenwolf Theatre’s 1982 production of True West is arguably one of the most significant events in Chicago theatre history. The company’s original production, starring Gary Sinise and John Malcovich, was the first show in the company’s history to go on national tour and established Chicago as one of the premier cities for theatre work. Since Steppenwolf’s production, True West has seen countless revivals across the country, including the legendary role-switching performances of Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly on Broadway in early 2000.
Sam Shepard’s story of diametrically opposed brothers is a contemporary theatre classic, which makes it very exciting to witness the homecoming of such a prolific show. Steppenwolf’s 2019 revival of True West focuses on the powerful themes while smartly changing certain elements to re-contextualize the story in interesting ways. Powerhouse writing, subtle narrative remixing, and wonderful stage design come together to create a highly engaging, must-see show.
The story follows the reunion of two estranged brothers, Lee and Austin, who reconnect to house-sit their mother’s southwestern home while she is away in Alaska. Austin, a straight laced and career driven writer, attempts to use this escape from city life to complete his current screenplay, but is foiled by a bombardment of questions from his brother Lee. Lee, an alcoholic career criminal living in the Mojave desert, begins to pick away at the veneer of Austin’s seemingly perfect life, and tensions boil over when Lee cons Austin’s producer into buying a screenplay that he has yet to write. The discussion between the two slowly unravels and escalates to reveal deep rooted family trauma, personal shortcomings, and the existential crises of each brother in their respective lives. The story attempts and succeeds in tackling deep and relevant themes of the failings of modernity, the curses of ancestry, and the existential chaos that envelops us all.
It is a given that the writing is incredibly strong. Being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1983 should be testament enough that Shepard’s writing, pacing, and theming is world class. True West is a fantastically crafted story through and through. The more interesting discussion surrounds what the 2019 revival does to expand and modernize the work, which Steppenwolf smartly prioritized. Austin’s frustration and perceived estrangement with the modern showbiz industry and Lee’s rejection of modern society takes on newer, more complex meanings since both brothers (Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood) are African American. The perception that Lee doesn’t play golf from the white Hollywood producer (Francis Guinan) is an example of a newly introduced racial tone that serves to elevate the narrative tension and create new facets for the story’s themes to flourish. This, along with subtle changes to music and stage design are all important remixes that serve to keep the story fresh and relevant for a modern production. Steppenwolf should be lauded for their deft artistic touch - each new element of the production is harmonious with the original narrative and creates an experience greater than the sum of its parts.
While the production certainly deserves glowing praise, certain aspects shine brighter than others. The first act suffers from diminishing returns when Lee is aggressively accosting his brother for about five minutes too long. The bombast of Lee begins to become monotonous and mitigates the intended emotional impact of the dialogue. Since these brothers have not seen each other in about five years, as an audience member I would expect awkwardness to be more prevalent in their interaction. Having a few pregnant pauses would both serve to highlight the barbed questions from Lee and create more variety in the interactions between the character foils. This complaint, though, is completely thrown out in Act 2, which is so chaotic and gripping that it will make you forget any issues with Act 1.
Steppenwolf’s revival of True West is proof that lightning can strike twice. If you are interested in where Chicago theatre has been and where it is going, this production is a must see.
Highly Recommended ★★★★
True West continues at Steppenwolf Theatre through August 25. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.
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