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Gambit Weekly True Fiction

By Dalt Wonk

MARCH 2, 1998:  The pure products of America go crazy." So wrote poet William Carlos Williams, who spent most of his life as a gynecologist in Paterson, N.J. -- so he ought to know!

Sam Shepard seems not only to have taken Williams' aphoristic line of verse to heart, he lives and breathes that feeling. And it pours out in his disturbing little plays like some kind of horribly fascinating disruption of nature -- the recently discovered massive mutations in frogs, for example, which sounds like the subject matter of one of Shepard's famous "riffs."

Seeing True West again in its recent incarnation by Starving Kitten Productions at Movie Pitchers, I was surprised by how little my impression of the script had been altered by time. It is as raw, as funny, as irritating and as dreamlike as the first time I encountered it.

Provocation does not usually hold up well on repeated viewings. And, though God knows Shepard is intentionally provocative, he creates a world that is ultimately obsessive and personal. There is something acid in his approach. You walk out of the theater feeling that everything else is somehow sentimental. It is cleansing in a way, but also vaguely sickening. You can't stay there long.

Perhaps the dream element is the key to what makes a play like True West work, for the insistence on "everyday" icons like golf clubs, house plants and toasters is never meant to suggest we are watching "reality."

Shepard's method is a kind of "allegorical realism." It is as though we have entered a nightmare distortion of the familiar and the mundane. The things and events of normal life are galvanized with new, mysterious and often frightening intimations, and symbolic dramas arise from unconscious hopes and fears.

In True West, for instance, the play begins in a believably realistic vein. Austin, a screenwriter, is house-sitting in his mother's suburban California home while she is on a sightseeing trip to Alaska. His ne'er-do-well brother, Lee, has appeared on the scene unexpectedly and wants to share the house. Lee is a drifter and small-time criminal. He has spent the previous six months in the Mojave desert with their alcoholic, down-and-out father.

This is a good boy vs. bad boy sibling rivalry. Austin graduated college, got married, has a family "up North" to whom he will return soon. He is disciplined, striving and ambitious. Lee is uneducated, unkempt, violent, envious and resentful.

What transpires, however -- if it is taken literally -- soon has the unconvincing quality of a "B" movie. The filthy and foul Lee invites Austin's Hollywood producer for a round of golf, sells him on a story idea for a "modern Western" and totally displaces his hard-working brother, who as a result crumples into an unkempt, violent wreck.

But in this hermetic world, the plot is only a construction of oneiric symbols that suck us into a vortex of emotion. For Shepard's focus is not on verisimilitude, but the intensity of the conflict that is revealed.

What Austin fears is not Lee, but his own submerged, self-destructive impulses. He lives out the paranoid nightmare of being supplanted by his brother and of giving in to that dark side of himself that is ruled over by "the father."

Woven through this as a contributing cause is the vapid dystopia of "pure" America and, in particular, "the Great American West" -- the myth gone sour. There is no cultural ballast to keep these driven individuals upright. They founder. They drown.

Of course, the main stage action in the play is an orgy of destruction in which the mother's tidy household is reduced to an unholy shambles. This includes the demolition of a typewriter with a golf club, vomiting into the desiccated remains of a philodendron, squashing fresh toast into the linoleum, etc.

Sometimes, this devastation is as revolting and irksome as the smashing of guitars by the latest rock nihilist. And at other times, it has something of the anarchistic drollery of Laurel and Hardy demolishing an entire traffic jam of flivvers. The tension between these extremes is, I suppose, quintessential Sam Shepard.

Under Janet Shea's direction, Nick Faust as bad boy Lee conveyed a complex malevolence that did not exclude a corrosive sense of humor. Matthew Morgan was engaging as Austin in his headlong plunge from control to chaos. Larry Gray was credible as producer Saul Kimmer, and Elise O'Neil amusingly deadpan as the returning mom.

True West marked one of the few times that a play's location fit comfortably into the seemingly inescapable "thereness" of Movie Pitchers. Glen Mehen designed the set.


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