Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robi Polgar, Fri., July 19, 2002
True West: Safe Cellar
The Off Center,
through July 20
Running Time: 1 hr, 30 min
There is a point, midway through True West, Sam Shepard's blast of brotherly discontent, where the ragged desert rat and petty criminal Lee narrates his idea for a movie screenplay to his Harvard-educated younger brother and professional screenwriter, Austin. In Lee's description are two men engaged in a wild chase across the Texas Panhandle, through "Tornado Country." The hunter is unsure where he's being led by his prey; the hunted has no idea where he's going. And neither man is aware that the other is afraid as they race into the turbulent night. So it is with Lee and Austin, engaged in a lifelong competition with ever-increasing stakes, racing toward an inevitable, violent conclusion that neither appears capable of stopping. It's practically Greek tragedy, this -- an accelerating threat of sibling confrontation spiraling toward conflagration.
True West is one of the most frequently produced plays around town -- there are a lot of young men here capable of turning up the machismo for 90 minutes of mayhem. Making this version more than just another high-testosterone slugfest, however, is the dirigo group's casting switcheroo: Corey Gagne began the run playing Lee to Judson L. Jones' Austin. They've since swapped roles and now trade every other night. The more natural casting sees Jones as Lee and Gagne as Austin, although the opposite casting has its moments. But missing almost entirely in either version is that pervading sense of threat. In its place comes some raucous comedy -- which certainly makes this production something substantial -- but without feeling that either man might just rip the heart out of the other at the slightest provocation renders the chase aspect of the story harmless. What's at stake for either man isn't always clear. The nebulous direction of this story by Guy Roberts takes the edge off the brothers' twisting and turning toward their mutual doom.
Which is too bad, as both Jones and Gagne are exceptional actors, offering plenty of sharp character work. And there are hints that the requisite hunter/hunted insanity is just ready to burst out of each. Jones' Lee, sitting at the kitchen table at the start of the play, staring at Gagne and answering questions with snide, cutting questions of his own, seems a coiled spring, a fist cocked, pointed at his brother/ nemesis. Gagne's Austin, when the tables have been turned, dances about Lee's flailing frustration with a maniacal pleasure. Stephen Pruitt's set design, with the audience seated in a square around a red floor, implies a heavyweight bout in a steaming ring. Robert Fisher's sound design lands sonic punch after punch. Ultimately, the stage is wrecked, lives are wrecked, but the psychic havoc of that tornado landing on top of it all is missed. We are offered, instead, a safe cellar when the play really wants to suck everyone into the ferocious sky.