As the 2022/2023 theatre season progresses at Theatre in the Round Players I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. So far this has been without a doubt, the strongest season show by show the company has had since I began attending regularly, long before I began reviewing shows. Would True West be the show that broke the perfect record? Given the pedigree, a modern classic by Sam Shepard and directed by Duck Washington, I didn’t think it likely. Sure enough, it’s another triumph for Theatre in the Round Players, the oldest community theater in the Twin Cities. Anchored by two powerhouse performances, True West keeps you precariously on the edge of your seat while regularly letting off steam with moments of dark humor. Shepards play, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1983, begins as an uncomfortable situation that takes a turn into absurdity.
Austin is a screenwriter who is staying in his mother’s house while she’s away on a trip to Alaska. He is grounded and well educated, straight laced, and married with children. As the play opens, we see him trying to work on his latest screenplay but unable to give it his attention due to the unexpected arrival of his estranged brother Lee. Lee is a drifter who has been living in the desert making his living as a thief by breaking into houses and stealing items to sell. Austin is clearly uncomfortable with his brothers presence and the audience shares his feelings. Annoyed at the interruption, distrustful of his intentions, and clearly somewhat intimidated, Austin does everything he can to keep the conversation light and non-confrontational. Unfortunately, Lee is one of those people who can turn every remark from a comment on the weather to a compliment into a confrontation. Austin along with the audience is thinking how can they be brothers or begin to relate to each other. When Lee interests Saul, the movie producer, Austin is working with on a story of his own, both of their lives turn upside down. The diametrically opposed brothers begin to swap places. The tone goes from sense of uneasiness to something akin to a black farce if such a thing exists. The intelligent Austin begins to make decisions ruled by emotions while the volatile Lee tries to rationally work on his screenplay. In nearly every way the two become comic versions of each other where they’ve swapped not only careers, but desires.
The performances of Joe Swanson as Austin and David Tufford as Lee are riveting. Swanson, whose character the audience identifies with, reacts as we do to Lee’s personality thus bonding us to him. The connection is so complete that we find our mind backpedaling at the same moments Austin is. We flinch when he does, and we have the urge to appease Lee when he does. When things begin to go off the rails, we suddenly start to diverge from the character. Swanson has to play it very composed and rational in the opening scenes, when he starts to change into a humorous version of Lee, he doesn’t go the volatile route, his irrational behavior has a different quality which feels authentic to his character. It’s the less showy of the two roles, but Swanson perfectly captured the idea of a man who hasn’t snapped, but more so departed the course and values by which he has lived his life. Tufford’s character Lee is the kind of man you never want to get stuck in a room or a conversation with. He intentionally turns every interaction into a moment of unease and awkwardness. Tufford prowls around the stage like a tiger in a cage adding to the feeling that he is about to pounce on Austin at any moment. The role could be played over the top and larger than life but Tufford wisely keeps the character internal making his every move packed with the potential, rather than an example of explosiveness. It’s the unreleased potential and expectation of violence that makes Tuffold’s performance so menacing. His performance is actually frightening, not because of what the character actually does, but by how it is performed. When his character begins to change, it makes that all the more humorous. To see the man who was clearly and intentionally making his brother frustrated by his constant comments while he’s trying to write, the reverse is comical. The reversals tone is so opposite is due to the actors understanding of their characters, the reversal of intent doesn’t change who they are. The cast is rounded out by Kjer Whiting as Saul and Kathleen Winters as Austin and Lee’s Mom, both small roles but well played.
Duck Washington clearly understands the dichotomy of the characters which is the focus of Shepard’s play. He understands that the exchanges the characters make in terms of goals and actions doesn’t change who they are underneath. He trusts the audience to see what is happening without pandering to them with obvious changes like wardrobe. He realizes that it’s important for the characters to remain who they are internally, even as the things they want change. He directs with intelligence, and a focus on building the tension from expectation rather than open aggression. Michael Haas’s set design effectively uses the theatre in the round arena creating the interior of a home. The lighting design by Shannon Elliott helps to set time of day and ends the play with a particularly effective spotlight. Colleen O’dell’s costume design help establish the characters with those of Saul being especially effective in helping to create the character of the Hollywood producer
True West runs through May 14th at Theatre in the Round Players in Minneapolis. For more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.theatreintheround.org/home/season-placeholder/current_season/true-west/
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