By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
The invisible pull drawing brothers Lee and Austin together to the mother’s empty house in Sam Shepard’s classic play “True West” (Our Shoes Are Red, now closed) is never explained.
The text itself suggests the causes are envy, competition, co-dependence, emotional damage and love — or, as this is a Sam Shepard play, family ties.
Lee and Austin (Matthew DiBasio and Kenneth Baldino, both superb), are in their thirties. Austin, an ivy league graduate and working screenwriter, is house sitting for his mom. Lee, an anti-social, desert-dwelling house thief is visiting unannounced.
The two have so little in common that the set up initially suggests some kind of “Strangers on a Train”-like thriller, in which Lee insinuates himself into Austin’s life and upends it.
DiBasio, as Lee, is menacing. Taking offense at every word Austin utters, yet acutely interested in his life. Baldino is polite at first, clearly aware of Lee’s reckless plans, yet seemingly helpless to stop them.
Director Devon Allen uses a light hand, giving the script and actors room to breathe. Allen cleverly uses transitions between scenes as a way to suggest the action that’s unfolded — with actors changing clothes onstage, and, later, as things become more debauched, tossing beer cans and debris.
Much of the play’s action revolves around the Hollywood producer Saul Kimmer (played wonderfully, as a slightly more refined Donald Trump by Dennis Kelly), with whom Austin is developing a project.
Lee worms his way between the two, hustling Kimmer at golf, and convincing him to produce his “authentic western” rather than Austin’s love story.
The plot is rich with meaning — on one level satirizing a film industry where Lee’s savage instincts are of more value than Austin’s collegiate refinements, but also posing deeper questions about what it is we respond to in art and entertainment, and why.
The play’s second half takes what was already dreamlike and odd in the play and makes it somewhat farcical. It’s Lee now, who agonizes over the typewriter, and tries to keep Austin, who, spurned by Saul for refusing to write Lee’s subject, has sworn off writing and taken up drinking, from going wild.
Baldino is delightful in these scenes, revealing the precocious child Austin was, and beaming with joy at the absurdities he finds around him.
DiBasio excels in showing Lee’s physicality. During an epic meltdown in act 3, in which he literally tears the house apart looking for a pencil, he is perfect, avoiding any “showiness,” but conveying volumes in one moment of fury.
The play’s depth stems, in part, from its persistent exploration of Lee and Austin’s past: their drunken absentee father, the mother whom they fear, and their mutual sense of alienation and rootlessness.
When these topics arise, we see glimmers of the children they were. This sense of shared tragedy, never explicit, appears to fuel both their rivalry and their loyalty.
Austin and Lee finally reach a compromise toward the end of the play, in which Austin will help Lee with his script, and Lee will take Austin to live in the desert. Their scene of collaboration is priceless, such that, once one’s seen it, she or he’s unlikely to ever forget the phrase, “I’m on intimate terms with this prairie.”
Their mother’s early return from Alaska breaks their momentum and triggers an almost instant regression within them.
Lorraine Bahr is wonderful in her part, conveying a perfect blend of the enigmatic and the ordinary. She shrugs off the death of her plants, which were the nominal reason for Austin’s house sitting, is unaware that Picasso’s paintings are appearing at the museum, rather than the dead painter himself, and tells her “boys” to fight outside, rather than in the house when Austin begins strangling Lee.
Mysterious, deep, and funny, “True West” is about “real American-type people,” as Lee might put it. The type he tells Austin are most likely to kill one another when it gets hot outside.