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Nearly every element of Sam Shepard’s public persona, as actor and playwright, is a half-truth—not wholly invented but not completely straightforward, either. His real name is Samuel Shepard Rogers III. He’s an enduring symbol of the American West who was born in Illinois, went to high school in California, and escaped to New York before he turned 20. And though he’s made what appears to be a sincere effort to turn his back on celebrity, that hasn’t stopped him from accepting roles in more than two dozen movies, including The Pelican Brief and Baby Boom.
To his credit, though, Shepard has put those conceits and contradictions right at the center of his writing. He mined them most poignantly of all in the ironically titled True West, his 1980 play about two brothers, two screenplays, and two Californias. The brothers—a scruffy wanderer named Lee and a strait-laced writer called Austin—spend a few chaotic days house-sitting for their vacationing mother, swigging coffee and beer and petulantly banging out movie dialogue. The play locates the house “about 40 miles east of Los Angeles”—or very near Duarte, the town where Shepard spent his teenage years on an avocado ranch with his family.
Shepard wrote True West at the tail end of the ’70s, after he’d returned to California as the playwright in residence at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre. It was the midpoint of a very productive stretch, as he moved from his earlier, more experimental short works—which he sometimes produced in a single sitting and later referred to as “flimsy ghosts”—toward more substantial, polished scripts. (Along with True West and others, he finished Buried Child, which won him a 1979 Pulitzer—the first play to win that prize without having appeared on Broadway—and Fool for Love while at the Magic.) It was also a time—as suburban sprawl made its way across the state, as a hedonistic and chaotic decade shuddered to a close in L.A. and the Bay Area—when the definition of California was in violent flux, even as an old Hollywood hand named Ronald Reagan was on his way to the White House. In 1980, it was difficult to tell which was the bigger insult to the real California: the cancerous spread of the new strip-mall landscape or the illusion that Reagan’s crusty cliches about the West and its tight-lipped heroes had ever had a basis in any reality beyond celluloid.
True West, which opened at Arena Stage last weekend in a funny, frantic new staging by Howard Shalwitz, artistic director of Washington’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, may be Shepard’s most frequently produced play these days. It operates on levels both easily accessible and deeply obscure, and requires just four actors and no set changes. And though its main two roles are huge, the lines that make them up have a certain rhythm, an almost musical flow; for that, and for the fact that the parts provide the opportunity for lots of drunken scrapping and the chance to smash stuff with golf clubs, actors absolutely love them. At the same time, each new production of True West finds itself in an awfully big shadow: In this case, there’s a good chance that Washington theater fans will have seen either the version of the play that ran on Broadway two years ago, with the film actors John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the leads, or the equally well-known 1983 production, which starred Gary Sinise and John Malkovich and is widely scrutinized in its videotape version by young actors.
In the 2000 edition, Reilly and Hoffman traded the roles back and forth; every third show, they’d switch. Given that the brothers are meant to symbolize two sides of the same conflicted artistic personality—Shepard once said that Lee and Austin “are each other…I’ve just divided one person in two”—and that each brother spends the play slowly morphing into the other, that was less a risk than it might sound. It helped that Reilly and Hoffman are roughly the same size.
In Arena’s version, the brothers could hardly be more different. Todd Cerveris, smallish and balding, may be the nerdiest Austin ever to walk the stage; he appears in the first scene wearing a Yale sweatshirt over a collared shirt, too-big khakis, and suede bucks. Fidgety and angst-ridden, he looks like a WASPy nebbish, if such a character exists. (The costumes, disappointing all around, are by Rosemary Ingham.) Ted Koch plays Lee as a huge, belly-scratching menace secure in the knowledge that if he wanted to he could snap his brother in half.
The production opens in murky light (Nancy Schertler’s fine lighting design proceeds to get harsher as the show progresses), revealing a set by Loy Arcenas that renders the kitchen exactly as you’d expect from the script. It’s a muted riot of linoleum and shag in green and yellow and brown; it’s got an island cooking range and a small table, both of which the brothers use to circle one another. Behind the house, you can make out a dry, jagged mountain range, the kind you’d see from a hotel room in Palm Springs or Las Vegas.
One obvious benefit of making Austin and Lee such opposites, of course, is that it makes their transformation that much more striking. On the whole, Shalwitz coaxes excellent performances from his actors—though Koch’s Lee ultimately outshines Cerveris’ Austin—while keeping the pacing tight and energized, with Western folk and pop songs seeping out between scenes. But including an intermission in this relatively short play kills some of its momentum. And, occasionally, Shalwitz’s direction drifts toward the world of the sitcom; the scene when Lee stumbles through the door lugging a stolen television is, well, straight off the small screen, which is where David Marks’ performance as Saul Kimmer, the producer, seems to come from as well. Actually, Shalwitz might be on to something. The biggest laughs on press night were reserved for the broadest jokes; Lee’s suggestion that he and Austin ought to concentrate on writing a crowd-pleasing “movie” and “leave the films to the French” nearly brought down the house.
The risks of that approach, though, become clear in the final scene, as Lee and Austin try to kill each other while their mother (Nancy Robinette), home early from Alaska, stands in the doorway with her suitcases. Cerveris and Koch engage in what has got to be the most punishingly physical wrestling match I’ve ever seen on a small stage; at one point Cerveris manages to cram Koch’s entire body into the refrigerator. But at least the night I was there, Shalwitz’s audience, riled up like kids on a sugar high by all the easy comedy earlier on, simply didn’t get that he was turning the staging serious. They kept giggling and guffawing even as Austin was tightening the phone cord around his brother’s neck—and then tightening it some more.
Still, for the most part the production works, particularly in the way it spotlights True West’s examination of entropy. That’s right, entropy: This is a play about the two sides of an artist’s personality, of course, and about the Western frontier filling out and doubling back on itself, but it’s also a play about the idea that without constant if mind-numbing vigilance, things get almost ridiculously messy over time. In this production, perhaps the most telling moment on that score comes during one of the blackouts. Austin and Lee have been tearing the kitchen to shreds, tossing beer bottles and mugs and toast in every direction, and when the scene ends and the crew members in their dark outfits creep out from the wings, you expect that they’re there to do a little tidying up, or at least rearranging, of the accumulated mess. But as the lights come back up, you realize that the crew has actually been distributing more garbage on the already huge piles.
The prevailing theme is just about the exact opposite of entropy in Violet, a 5-year-old musical that had its area premiere over the weekend in a production by the Keegan Theatre at the Clark Street Playhouse in Arlington. With music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Brian Crawley, it’s a show that aims for unnaturally tidy resolutions of very messy problems.
The story of a young woman with a disfigured face who travels by Greyhound from her home in the mountains of North Carolina to visit a televangelist in Tulsa, Violet is the sort of brightly optimistic tale moderately well told to a whooping audience of friends and family that’s guaranteed to bring out the snarky side in any critic. As Violet, Deanna Harris is full of wide-eyed gumption, straining her pretty voice near the breaking point as she meets two Army men: the good-looking, immature white boy Monty (the excellent Trenton Wagler) and his more circumspect black superior Flick (the tentative but engaging Steven Claiborne).
Each rollicking musical number (there are 241 of them altogether—OK, 19—strung together in no particular hurry by director Amy McWilliams and backed by a hidden seven-person band) reveals another unsurprising surprise: The televangelist (Colby Codding) is a sham, Monty is a player, Flick possesses deep reserves of humanity, and Violet finds the Lord within herself rather than in the roughly healing touch of some preacher who lives four states away. It’s actually all a little better executed than I’m letting on, and the interracial pairing at the end adds a little frisson of rebellion that probably keeps this musical from entering the standard high school repertory, but after a dozen songs you begin to wonder what it’s all adding up to beyond some very pat Christian lessons about acceptance and another notch in the bio for these young musical-theater aspirants.
It’s the sort of show whose press release, in a couple of sentences, tells you everything you need to know about how your two-and-a-half hours in the hangarlike auditorium will unfold: “Violet leaves her mountain farm,” it reads, “and boards a Greyhound bus bound for the Hope & Glory Building in Tulsa, Oklahoma, believing that she’ll come home pretty. Along the way, she meets two soldiers, one black, one white. Together, they learn about love, courage and self-worth.” Check your cynicism at the door, private. CP