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True West 

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Profiles Performance Ensemble

at Red Bones Theatre

Just when the western was starting to seem about as up-to-date as a Roy Rogers rerun, along come films like Dances With Wolves and Son of the Morning Star to renew the genre--temporarily.

We love our myths too much to let them die, and so we replenish them with wishful thinking. We even make them redeem, retroactively, the problems of the present--our rampant materialism, lethal contempt for nature, and antisocial pursuit of power. That's a heavy load for Kevin Costner to bear, but hell, a sensitive man's gotta do what a sensitive man's gotta do. What it takes, it seems, is acknowledging the worth of Native Americans.

Indians' reverence for a land they never thought they owned, for nature as an ally and not an adversary, and for the power of visions over precepts are values that are also implicit in Sam Shepard's plays. Seeking to retrieve a faded mythology, Shepard has carved out a career deconstructing the Wild West; he plays riffs on the old themes of desperadoes versus white hats versus redskins. True West is his most transparent attempt to clear away exhausted myths; he runs them through the Hollywood meat grinder to see what truth remains after they've been turned into celluloid fantasies.

What is the true west, and is it any less debased than the rest of American life? Shepard searches for it in the rivalry between two brothers--Austin, a successful screenwriter with an Ivy League education, and Lee, a feckless drifter, con artist, and part-time burglar. After a five-year absence, Lee shows up at their mother's California bungalow (she's off in Alaska); he's just spent three months in the Mojave desert, and envies Austin's plush life and his job writing make-believe for big bucks. Lee decides to try it himself. Austin seems willing to help, saying "You could turn your life around."

But it's Lee who turns Austin's life around. Ingratiating himself with Austin's easily impressed producer (by winning him over on the golf course), Lee convinces the money man that he has an idea for a "true-life western" that should satisfy any audience's thirst for authenticity. The silly story (a sly in-joke from Shepard's own Hollywood experiences?) concerns two men who chase each other in cars across the Texas panhandle; each pulls his favorite horse behind him in a trailer. In time neither one knows who's chasing and who's being chased--an apt metaphor for the brothers' plight.

Gradually Lee and Austin switch roles, though neither does very well at the other's. Lee incongruously pecks at Austin's typewriter while Austin, intent on proving his pluck, steals toasters from homes in the dead of night. (This petty larceny, Shepard implies, is the only derring-do the new west permits its outlaws.) In another less-than-epic battle, Lee and Austin tussle over the keys to Austin's car. Finally Austin discards his career for the romantic dream of living in the desert with Lee; meanwhile Lee, eager to settle down in luxury, refuses to go back. Their mother's return reminds them of what they are--sick of their lives, even more disgusted with the ones they've stolen from each other.

The brothers' easy exchange of life-styles is Shepard's all-too-clear indictment of modern Americans' interchangeable identities. The play also comments ruefully on the failure of American mythology; the old west may be dead but it haunts Austin like a stolen birthright. Sadly, the brothers replace that myth with a pale imitation of High Noon, an inconclusive car chase substituted for the elemental showdown.

Through telling details Shepard makes us see the brothers' losses. Austin can't create but he can remember--when he describes how his drunken father lost his real teeth, one by one, and in a bar-hopping spree, his false teeth too. Lee may have sojourned in the desert but he can't stand the sound of crickets. They crave a "true-life" adventure but what they end up with--toasters and televisions--can't fill the gap.

Inevitably any performance of True West is going to be haunted by Steppenwolf's 1982 definitive production. Ian Streicher's staging for Profiles Performance Ensemble is clean and reasonably compelling, but the performances aren't edgy, risky, or hungry enough to set fire to Shepard or capture his quirky humor. Even the climactic telephone-cord combat between the brothers looks careful. (Though admittedly Robert G. Smith's cramped set, littered with debris from the scene's toaster frenzy, is none too safe for a fight.)

Joe Jahraus as Lee isn't as menacing, unpredictable, or charismatic as Malkovich was (and judging from his recent films, I mean was). Lacking such lures, Jahraus needs to get some other handle on this new-age outlaw. But he richly portrays the man's deviousness, and plays Lee's changes better than Darrell Christopher does Austin's evolution from hack writer to toaster rustler.

Until he loses his bearings, Austin is meant to act as our reality principle. Though Christopher conveys Austin's hapless good intentions and much-tested family loyalty, he clings to Austin's preppy nice-guy image longer than he should and underplays the writer's doubts about his calling. The line "There's no such thing as the West these days" should carry much more weight.

Bruce Lorie, playing the producer, has the thankless task of making us believe that an experienced mogul could fall for anyone as creepy and obvious as Lee. I wasn't convinced, but I doubt if any actor could pull it off.

Judith Hoppe plays the brothers' unfazed mom with the right lack of frazzle. Interestingly, her character is more involved in Picasso's supposed visit to their town than in her sons' disintegration. The new west suddenly looks very old east. Sic transit gloria Duke.


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