Monday, July 22, 2019

Withering Heights? Steppenwolf's 'True West' Revival Stronger for Onstage Ferocity Than Acute Storytelling -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

True West
by Sam Shepard
directed by Randall Arney
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 25

Sam Shepard's True West stands as the most famous play ever staged by Steppenwolf Theatre.

Not the current production, though stellar, but the 1982 version that would go to Broadway, launch John Malkovich and Gary Sinise to stardom and define Chicago's Steppenwolf as the epicenter for in-your-face theater.

Though I was too young to attend that mythic run, I did see the production on TV a few years later, and retain a vague familiarity with the visceral explosiveness that long seemed to be synonymous with the theater now at 1650 N. Halsted (with ever-impressive expansion plans).

I've attended over 35 Steppenwolf shows over the past 20 years and am decidedly a fan of that particular theater, as well theater in general, attending roughly 60+ works each year.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
So it's not like I need much impetus to see anything that seems intriguing, but given my appreciation of the history of True West at Steppenwolf, I was especially compelled to see this reprise directed by longtime ensemble member, Randall Arney.

Though any superlative play should sustain numerous productions over the years, in some ways the legacy of True West--explicitly at Steppenwolf--does viewing it presently something of a disservice.

During Act I, I found myself awaiting the onstage fireworks--i.e. fisticuffs between brothers Lee and Austin--almost to the point of distraction.

And when much more mayhem ensued during Act II, I found myself admiring the sheer physicality--and vague flashbacks--more than the narrative.

As the initially prim screenwriter, Austin, and his combustible brother, Lee, Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood are unequivocally good.

But without any apology required from either, they aren't Sinise and Malkovich, the latter of whom remains the archetype for menace on the verge of madness.

With the inclusion of Steppenwolf stalwart Francis Guinan, who reprises his role as Hollywood producer Saul Kimmer 37 years down the road--as well as the 4th cast member, Jacqueline Williams, as the mother of Austin and Lee--True West is eminently watchable, at times riveting and estimable with or without reverence for its history at Steppenwolf.

But--perhaps because I was anticipating the overt theatrics--I don't think I properly grasped Shepard's commentary on Hollywood, nor how differences in relations with their mother and much-absent father fostered the brothers' differing paths and temperaments.

Though I did stay for and appreciate the post-show discussion, I also was left unsure about a narrative point.

As mentioned above, Austin is Ivy League educated and working on a screenplay supposedly to be bought by Saul. He is staying at his mother's house, a good bit east of L.A., while she is in Alaska.

Seemingly, out of the blue, Lee arrives, his haphazard appearance readily defining him as roughshod.

He meets Saul, clearly more a money man than artist, and impresses him with a movie idea, seemingly beyond that of Austin's.

Which suggests to me something of a Mozart and Salieri dichotomy, with perhaps the volatile, uncouth Lee truly more creatively gifted than his far more educated and disciplined brother.

But because Saul's interest in Lee's pitch seems to arise after the former winds up on the wrong side of some wagering between the two, I was left unclear if Lee really may be some kind of wunderkind, or simply a fortuitous charlatan.

Which may well be part of Shepard's point, that the distinction between those who succeed and those who don't may not always be clear.

Or merited.

That such considerations came to mind bespeaks the talents of the immortal Shepard (who passed in 2017), and the qualities of True West, even if I only partially perceived the themes beyond the battered typewriter.

And I mean battered as in smacked with a 9-iron.

If you don't like commotion and chaos, True West clearly isn't the play for you.

And if you do, this fine rendition may not scale the heights of Steppenwolf's own historic precedent.

But, especially as this isn't a piece oft-done elsewhere, I suggest you avail yourself of the opportunity to see what Hill and Smallwood do with it, under the auspices of Arney, who was around for the original (though Steppenwolf's famed production wasn't the world premiere).

Then, with your interest properly stoked, head to YouTube and find the PBS version, whose image quality isn't great but which should provide a sense of why True West initially helped to take Steppenwolf Theater in such remarkable directions. 

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