“Who will provide the grand design, what is yours and what is mine?
‘Cause there is no more new frontier, we have got to make it here
- Don Henley, “The Last Resort”
The wanderlust and notion of manifest destiny that drove our forefathers west spoke to the American character, warts and all. Alongside noble ideals of discovery, adventure and exploring the limits of our endurance came the uncomfortable realities of an entitled colonialism that saw the ravaging of Native American lands and the brutal conquest of territories that had been “claimed” long before Lewis and Clark set out. Ever since, we’ve been at war with ourselves, trying to find a middle ground between our expansionist mindset and our instinct to protect the downtrodden. But how to reconcile that yearning when there’s nowhere left to go? Sam Shepard takes on this question with his combustible dark comedy, True West, running at The Gamm through May 5.
With Gamm artistic director Tony Estrella at the helm, True West hits every note perfectly, balancing between crude, often toxic masculine tropes and a surprisingly tender bond between two brothers who represent the polarity of our natures. Steve Kidd shines as Austin, a struggling screenwriter who leaves his family behind to wrap up a story pitch in the seclusion of his mother’s suburban California home. Fastidious and bordering on milquetoast, Austin’s tranquil isolation is soon shattered by the surprise appearance of his brother, Lee (a gloriously grotesque Anthony Goes), a sweaty grifter and part-time cat burglar who spends most of his time living alone in the desert, hatching schemes and pawning stolen appliances to get by. With their mother on vacation in Alaska and their estranged father (who remains unseen, an alcoholic shadow looming large over the entire proceedings) barely surviving in some unnamed desert locale, Austin at first seems like the only stable character, on the verge of monetary and creative success, while Lee comes across as the ragged Oscar to his persnickety Felix, launching into exquisite tantrums that render no household appliance safe.
Punctuated by Michael McGarty’s magnificent set filled with practical appliances (a working sink, refrigerator and, eventually, a fleet of efficient toasters) and a very effective sound design by Charles Cofone (forlorn cries by coyotes, among other sounds, slip into scene change music, almost as if trying to hide), Kidd and Goes proceed to deliver a masterclass in acting. To say that their performances and the smooth transitions as each one takes on the other’s personality seem effortless would be to do a disservice to their craft. Estrella has not only pulled out the best from each, but pushes them to their limits, both mentally and physically.
Lee is, at first, brutishly dismissive of Austin’s “art,” emphasizing his disdain with a limp-wristed gesture, while Austin bemoans Lee’s animalistic existence, living off of ill-gotten gains and roaming the badlands. Even the brothers’ accents betray their different statuses, Lee’s drawl a counterpoint to the erudite, flat middle-class tones of Kidd’s Austin. The turning point occurs, however, when Lee spouts an idea of his own for a “true” Western screenplay, an improbable story of two men chasing each other through the desert toward the border, running out of gas and taking up the chase on horseback. In a somewhat predictable flip of the coin, Austin’s agent, Saul (Richard Donelly in the type of crisp, well-honed characterization that we have come to expect of him), gravitates toward Lee’s pitch and is manipulated into changing camps, due in part to Austin’s principled refusal to be complicit in Lee’s hijacking of the artistic process.
It is at this juncture that the two brothers begin to merge, Austin realizing that his ambitions may seem somewhat trite and limiting, while Lee’s surprising love for and knowledge of golf was his gateway into landing a lucrative advance for a major motion picture (“it’s a MOVIE, not a film!”). Their accents begin to merge (“we all sound alike when we’re sloshed”) and, eventually, Lee’s alcoholic gymnastics from the first scene are replaced by Austin’s drunken plans to prove his virility by stealing a toaster from the neighbors. In an amusing mirror image, once fully steeped in his regression/progression, Kidd gives himself the same whore bath in the kitchen sink that Goes does earlier on. It’s a cheap gag, but so well set up that it lands perfectly.
These are the kinds of parts that actors can wallow in, but without conviction and courage, it could be 90 minutes of empty posturing and shouting. Kidd and Goes embrace their roles so fully that one wonders how it’s possible to do a matinee and an evening performance without a medically induced coma and a bowl of Wheaties between performances. Besides the physical demands (the final, violent fight between the two is brilliantly choreographed by Norm Beauregard in what has to be the most original fight sequence we’ve seen in years), the mental toll must be exacting. The two men are not only unwitting symbols of America’s conflicting natures (to say that True West is “even more relevant now than ever before” would be the type of hackneyed writer’s cliché for which Lee rips Austin, so we won’t go there), but also shadows of their father, still paying for his sins, striving to go forward, but stuck at a border of their own making. When their mother unexpectedly comes home early, she is greeted by chaos at once amusing and terrifying. Rae Mancini, looking a little young to be Lee and Austin’s mom, is nevertheless tantalizing in her brief appearance, displaying an eccentric wit that goes some small way toward explaining the two odd creatures battling it out in this trash-laden kitchen with its dead plants. She is a stabilizing element between the two, a necessary factor for balance and respite before they succumb to their basest selves. “There’s nothing real down here,” says Mom, driving home the point that the frontiers that we seek are now purely internal. If Shepard tells us anything, it’s that when you finally run out of room, you run into yourself.
The Gamm Theatre presents Sam Shepard’s True West through May 5. 1245 Jefferson Blvd., Warwick. For tickets and more information, call 401-723-4266, email: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit gammtheatre.org/boxoffice