Playwright: Sam Shepard
At: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets: Steppenwolf.org. Runs through: Aug. 25
What is the "true west?" Deserts and prairies and stories about unassailable heroes and black-hatted villains? California, with Hollywood's fantasy machine? Or is it to be found in the pleasant suburban homes that have sprung up seemingly everywhere in what once were wide open spaces? Steppenwolf Theatre explores all of these aspects of the American West in its revival of the play that put it on the map back in 1982: Sam Shepard's True West.
Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood star as, respectively, Austin and Leetwo brothers with vastly different value systems. Austin, an educated man with a wife and family, is trying to make a name for himself as a Hollywood screenwriter, using the solitude of his mother's house to finish his script. To his dismay, he is visited by his older, intimidating brothera drifter who robs houses to make money. When Lee, who initially makes fun of Austin's "art," decides to try to sell a story he has come up with, the brothers end up on a collision course that leads to the collapse of the younger brother's ideals and self-image.
Looming over them both is the image of their fathera broken, destitute, alcoholic failure who (like Lee) lives somewhere in the desert. Both of them are afraid that, in some way, they could become him. At the start, Lee seems more likely to fall into this trap, but Austin is not as far away as he'd like to believe, and as he slips more and more into desolation after his dream is usurped by a brother who can hardly even write. Nothing, not even his respect for their mother (Jacqueline Williams), can stop his more base nature from taking over his life.
Hill and Smallwood are both phenomenal here. These are two of the newer members of Steppenwolf's ensemble (Francis Guinan, reprising his role in the original, is on hand to represent the old guard), and they handle this iconic material with an aplomb that comes as no surprise whatsoever. What is more surprising, though, is how funny this play is. Shepard is not known for his comic stylings. Here, however, despite the serious undertones of the plot and the violence (oh, yes, there is violence) that occurs, Arney and his actors keep the audience laughing throughout. It doesn't diminish the drama of the play; it enhances the realism.
To judge from this play, the true west is realized more by the wild call of the desert than the undramatic sameness of suburbia. Harkening back to its roots, Steppenwolf once again puts this on display with its focus on the sometimes volatile nature of human beings, but at the same time delivers a production that never fails to entertain. Revisiting one of its greatest accomplishments, it has created a brilliant new one to add to the mix.