Crucible Theatre, Sheffield
The large, recently refurbished Crucible stage provides a perfect setting for a revival of Sam Shepard's True West. Written in 1980, it follows in the well established tradition of modern American drama in presenting relationships in a dysfunctional family. The main issue here seems to be sibling rivalry, but as the play proceeds it becomes apparent that we are being invited to respond at a non realistic level to symbolic action more reminiscent of Pinter's The Homecoming than Miller's Death of a Salesman.
Screen writer Austin (John Light/Nigel Harman) has retreated to his mother's well ordered house in a South Californian suburb, partly to water her plants while she is away in Alaska, but more particularly to prepare for a meeting with film producer Saul Kimmer (John Schwab), who is about to give him his first big break. Austin is joined by his estranged brother Lee (Nigel Harman/John Light), a drunk and a dropout, who makes a living of a kind by breaking into wealthy houses to steal electrical equipment. The relationship between the two brothers is initially edgy, resentful, accusatory: the creative, cerebral Austin is cowed by the tough physicality and barely repressed aggression of his brother. As the play develops, Lee, the threatening outsider, destroys his brother's career and inhabits his role. This is paralleled visually by the destruction of the family home. By the end of the play there is complete role reversal, with Austin, now drinking heavily, determined to prove that he can steal electrical objects, and emulate his brother by living rough in the Mojave desert. He too can be a denizen of the True West.
Director Paul Miller has opted to have the two main actors alternate their roles in subsequent performances. This makes perfect sense given the role reversal in the play, and also suggests that the two characters represent opposing facets of a coalesced figure: the playwright, perhaps. In an interesting transcribed interview in the programme, Daniel Evans (Artistic Director of the Crucible) asks both actors, 'And do you think that's partly what the play is about: two different sides of the same coin?'
In his initial stage directions for the play, Shepard is most particular about the details of set, costume, props and sound. 'If a stylistic concept is grafted onto the set design it will only serve to confuse the evolution of the characters' situation, which is the most important focus of the play'. Clearly, the visual and aural aspects of the production are an integral part of Shepard's composition. In this production the set sits comfortably on the Crucible stage, with two back projections of orange groves adding interest in the daytime scenes. Scene changes are discretely covered by synthesised music and the specified sound effects are effective without being obtrusive. Props assume a symbolic significance: the car keys are passed backwards and forwards, punctuating the action and representing the power struggle between the brothers; the toasters provide a moment of visual comedy.
But the play is held together by strong, convincing, detailed performances by the two lead actors. Nigel Harman is a powerful and menacing Lee: John Light's fluidity of facial expression and gesture suggest the complexity of Austin's reaction to his bullish and manipulative brother. John Schwab is equally convincing as the complacent, self-deceiving Hollywood producer: 'I've always gone with my hunches. Always. And I've never been wrong'.
The degeneration into childish squabbling and fighting is carefully controlled, as are the play's more violent actions. When Abigail McKern makes a delightful late entrance into the play as a strangely other-worldly Mom, she says, in a mild, unassertive tone, 'You boys shouldn't fight in the house. Go outside and fight. There's been enough damage done already.' A more pertinent comment than she realises.
There is much more to this short, multi-layered play. Occasional humour, for instance. And, implicitly, consideration of whether the 'American Dream' has faded, while the tough guy hero gets on his horse and gallops off into the sunset of the "True West".
This is a welcome inclusion in the Crucible's current programme: an interesting, thought provoking play, well worth the revival.
"True West" continues at the Crucible until 5th June.
Reviewer: Velda Harris