True West Illuminates Script with Amazing Physical Work

By James E. Trainor III; photo by Bob Goodfellow.

Sean Christopher Lewis (l) and Tim Budd in True West

Iowa City – True West is Sam Shepard’s explosive drama about sibling rivalry taken to absurd lengths. It tells the story of two brothers: Austin (Tim Budd), a would-be screenwriter, and Lee (Sean Christopher Lewis), a petty thief. Austin is plantsitting for their mother in L.A. while she visits Alaska, and taking this opportunity to work on his screenplay. Lee shows up unannounced and, with his roguish charm, commences to hustle his way into Austin’s life. Within twenty-four hours of his arrival, he has Austin’s producer in the palm of his hand, and convinces him to produce his idea — a real, true-to-life western — rather than Austin’s predictable love story.

Trouble is, Lee can’t write — he can’t even spell. He needs Austin to write the script for him. The frustrated Austin is reluctant, but there’s something enchanting in the reversal of roles — he has long wished to ditch his suburban life and head off into the desert in search of adventure. Of course, he doesn’t have what it takes to survive any more than Lee has a screenwriter in him. The two brothers spend the entire play circling each other, like dangerous animals, but with a very human depth to their jealousy and need.

Sean Christopher Lewis is charming, and frighteningly authentic, as the drifter Lee. His physical work creates an easy-going but competent cat burglar, someone usually slovenly but capable of stealth. He is intimidating but also a great deal of fun. Lewis has captured a striking duality in Lee. There’s a boyishness about him that is endearing — a certain creative drive and restless energy that Austin seems to lack — but the flip side of that is a petulant, destructive, manipulative nature. The composite is a fascinating character that is gleefully horrifying to watch. At the same time, Lee is ultimately sympathetic because it seems his every action is motivated by compassion for his poor, alcoholic father.

Austin, played with precision and passion by Tim Budd, seems to have written their father off completely. He’s certainly not happy to see Lee, as Budd’s acting choices make quite clear. His constant sizing up of his scene partner, and his timid nature, even when he’s clearly frustrated, speaks volumes about how dangerous Lee really is. When Austin finally comes undone, drunkenly crooning and insisting on making a huge plate of toast for breakfast, Budd’s skill as an actor really shines. He’s found just the right level of comic exaggeration to keep the situation ridiculous and entertaining while still being scary and sad.

Budd and Lewis play off of each other well, ribbing each other as brothers would, and when they get physical there is a real sense of how much unresolved tension there is in this relationship. They say a great deal silently that enriches Shepard’s already magnificent script. They also both understand the way these two’s identities intertwine: they’re both similarly lost, both restless seekers, whether they’re in search of a good story or a place to call home. Their destinies are wrapped up together, just like in plot of a bad western, as Lee points out at the end of the first act: “The one that’s chasing, he don’t know where the other one’s taking him. And the one that’s being chased — he don’t know where he’s going.” Lee can scare Austin into submission and prod him into action, but he has no idea what he’ll set in motion. Neither brother has a plan, and what’s going to be unleashed when all this pent-up hostility explodes is something they can only discover together.

Ron Clark’s direction guides these skilled actors to just the right tone and pace for this piece. Particularly effective is starting with a silent moment, as Budd sits timidly at the typewriter, and Lewis looms larger-than-life in the kitchen. We know instantly which brother is which, and the nonverbal interaction makes the tension that much thicker when they finally do speak. He also understands how to make the most of the comic moments in this play while still painting the dramatic picture very clearly.

Jason Tipsword’s fight choreography helps flesh out the physical relationship between these two brothers, as things gradually escalate from nudges to pushes to full-on fratricidal fury. The moments of violence are exciting and visceral and fit right in with the general destruction that happens in the final scenes.

The set, by Shawn Ketchum Johnson, is realistic and functional; scene changes take place smoothly and create the feel of chaos very effectively. One of the most memorable things about True West is how the two brothers tear apart their mother’s house as they find it more and more difficult to contain their rage. A word of warning to those planning to sit in the front row: this play uses a more old-fashioned method of 3D than modern movies. Don’t be surprised if a typewriter key or phone receiver comes flying at you!

The play is an American classic, almost Greek in its simplicity and emotional scale, but very modern with its wild flights of fancy. Many consider it the peak of Shepard’s brilliance, and it’s definitely a play that challenges and rewards actors. Riverside Theatre has done an excellent job of bringing this engaging script to life.

True West runs through September 30, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 2:00. Tickets are $15-28.

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