note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Beverly Creasey
TRUE WEST put Sam Shepard on the map. Even now, it remains his best play. His smouldering sonata for two brothers snarled in competitive combat, each trying to show the other up, still makes exciting theater. Like all of Shepard’s characters, the baggage they tote around is mythical. Like the Biblical Jacob and Esau, they quarrel over their birthright, doomed to repeat the sins of their father.
The New Repertory Theatre production (in their swanky new Watertown digs) is surprisingly hyper-real---with lots of pauses for reflection. This surreal pace serves cleverly to ratchet up the suspense. Director Robert Walsh builds on Todd Alan Johnson’s strengths, relishing his threatening stares and frightening silences, as the seemingly crazier of the two brothers. No one does menace like Johnson. His Sweeney Todd and Mack The Knife (not to mention his lupine appearance at New Rep last year) still haunt me. The man has electricity instead of blood in his veins.
Everyone’s favorite funnyman, John Kuntz, has to keep his funnybone under wraps for most of the play, as the serious, screenwriting sibling who doesn’t see trouble brewing until it’s too late. Stephen Epstein, as the slick agent outmaneuvered by Johnson, mixes oily Hollywood bravado with a pinch of trepidation making the character more interesting than he usually is portrayed---but it is M. Lynda Robinson, as mother, who wrings pathos and resonance from the script. Her rejection of the madness (“I don’t recognize it at all”) speaks volumes.
Linda O’Brien’s shadowy lighting, especially for Johnson in the opening moments (when your eyes have not adjusted to the light and you don’t see him lurking like a gunslinger in ambush), niftily foreshadows the mayhem to come in Janie E. Howland’s kitchy ‘50s set. Molly Trainer’s costumes suit each character to a T, right down to Kuntz’ polyester pants and Stephen Epstein’s shiny shoes. Walsh and company take a fresh, long look at the American ethic: This is not your father’s TRUE WEST. Even if you know the play, you’ll be struck by the reinterpretation …and blown away by Johnson’s performance.