William Apps and Nate Miller in True West. Photo by Alan Simons.
The program cover depicts what appear to be two adolescent wolves in some state of aggression (or play?). And the set – a mid-1980s-style kitchen boxed in on all sides by eight-foot-tall plexiglas panels – instantly transforms the stage into a large enclosure. You are visiting an exhibit at the zoo decorated in its species’ natural habitat; or looking at a very large, well-appointed rodent cage. From the moment you take your seat for Actors Theatre of Louisville’s new production of True West, you get a clear sense that what you are about to see is wild creatures on display.
Estranged adult brothers Lee and Austin have run into each other at their mother’s home while she is on vacation. Austin, a Hollywood screenwriter with an Ivy-league education and young family of his own, was invited to housesit and has been spending his time quietly working on a new screenplay. Lee has shown up unannounced, covered in a thick layer of dust and with plenty of beer in tow, after several months living alone in the desert. He is looking to rob some of the homes in his mother’s suburban Los Angeles neighborhood and to get out before anyone traces the thefts back to her. The play explores the brothers’ relationship through a series of events and several interactions with other characters, all within the confines of their mother’s kitchen, the metaphorical heart of the home where they grew up. It is within these walls that family dynamics shaped the personalities and life choices of these two men – two boys raised by an alcoholic father and a mother unable to cope with reality, whose marriage ultimately came to an end, though not before sufficient damage had been inflicted.
The acting in this production is solid all around. Actors Nate Miller (Austin) and William Apps (Lee) are entirely believable as brothers, and they let their ingrained sibling dynamics show through at all the right times. Miller’s immediate retreat at the first sign of Apps’ aggression is memorable, and the progressively growing boldness in his responses to his brother makes the arc of their relationship throughout the play all the more evident from beginning to end.
Connor Barrett is appropriately full of crap as Saul Kimmer, the Hollywood hotshot looking to produce Austin’s latest screenplay, but there were times when the banter between him and Lee felt uncomfortable and forced. This is not at all in keeping with the events of the plot, where Saul is so instantly won over by Lee that they agree to play golf and do business together within minutes of meeting for the first time. Perhaps Rapp was trying to more deeply explore the insinuation on Austin’s part that Lee had somehow threatened Saul into the business deal. But as this is not supported by Saul’s own demeanor or words in a later scene, it doesn’t work.
Finally, a very delicately neurotic performance by Emily McDonnell does a wonderful job of tying the play together at the end and highlighting the dysfunctional elements of the brothers’ childhood. Unfortunately, I personally couldn’t get past wondering about her age. Was it just me, or did McDonnell look like she was about the same age as Miller and Apps? Perhaps I am mistaken, and she just has very good skin; it was hard to be certain with distance and a sheet of plexiglass between us. But it was a little disappointing to be distracted from her very good performance by the physical reality that she just didn’t look like their mom.
Design elements come together neatly to serve Rapp’s choice of presenting this play as a study of human behavior. Lighting and sound are utilitarian and unobtrusive, serving as natural backdrops that help place the action in time. The set, already discussed, creates a physical barrier between the observer and the observed. It makes the “fourth wall” style of performance quite literal, which creates an especially interesting dichotomy for a performance space in the round. The kitchen space is small and bright but sparsely decorated, hinting somewhat at the emotional hollowness of the family that once inhabited it and, perhaps, of the woman who still does. Costume details help paint characters, from Lee’s ragged and too-tight denim cutoffs and Austin’s bland button-downs to Sal’s big-shot-casual garb and their mother’s fashionably sensible outfit. They also help to illustrate Austin’s journey, in particular, as he devolves from said button-downs into stained undershirt and skid-marked tighty-whiteys by the final scene. It is clear that no one, not even the successful son, is able to escape the pervasive influence of this family’s dysfunctional past.
All in all, an interesting production of a very good play. Perhaps four out of five stars. However, it never quite found that je ne sais quoithat could’ve really knocked my socks off. It made me think, it made me laugh (a lot). But more than anything, it made me wish fervently that I had been able to see the Broadway production with Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly. That said – solid acting, cohesive design, clear direction, excellent writing. Despite not hitting it out of the park, still highly recommended.
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