49: True West

9 May

Sam Shepard’s True West is bleak, funny and brutal.

book on desk

Two brothers are reunited in their mother’s house while she holidays in Alaska. Austin is the sensible, successful brother and he’s been asked to take care of his mother’s place. Lee is a petty criminal, drunken and loud-mouthed.

But there’s something in their relationship that keeps Austin trying to get closer while Lee keeps pushing him away. Reading the play I kept wondering why Austin didn’t just tell him to leave. The man was trashing their mother’s place and using Austin’s car to cart away the goods he’d stolen from the neighbours, I couldn’t understand why he let him continue. There was something deeper than fear in play. It was something that puzzled Lee as well:

LEE: Now what’re you gonna’ do? Kick me out?

AUSTIN: I’m not going to kick you out, Lee.

LEE: You couldn’t kick me out, boy.

AUSTIN: I know.

LEE: So you can’t even consider that one. (pause) You could call the police. That’d be the obvious thing.

AUSTIN: You’re my brother.

LEE: That don’t mean a thing. You go down to the L.A. Police Department there and ask them what kinda’ people kill each other the most. What do you think they’d say?

AUSTIN: Who said anything about killing?

LEE: Family people. Brothers. Brothers-in-law. Cousins. Real American-type people. They kill each other in the heat most. In the Smog-Alerts. In the Brush Fire Season. Right about this time a’ year.

You know when you read these lines that the play is going to end badly for someone. What you don’t know is how or who.

Shepard builds the suspense as Lee insidiously takes over Austin’s life, starting with his career. Lee bamboozles the film producer, with whom Austin is in negotiations, in scenes that speak volumes about the vacuousness of Hollywood and the narcissism of some of those at the top. When their mother finally returns home, any hope you held that she might be the one to get the men back in check, dissolves.

The brothers lives seem inextricably linked: for one to rise, the other must fall. True West charts the point where their fortunes and characters switch places but leaves you knowing that wildness and brutality is at the core of both.

Publisher: Faber and Faber (Sam Shepard: Seven Plays)

Cast: 3M, 1F

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