Steppenwolf Theatre(Downstairs)

True West

at the Steppenwolf Theatre (Downstairs)

by Dan Zeff

Chicago –The 1982 production of Sam Shepard’s drama “True West” was a landmark production in both national and Chicago theater. The play was first staged in 1980 to a negative reception. But the incendiary 1982 presentation by the Steppenwolf Theatre cemented Shepard as one of America’s most original and stimulated playwrights and elevated the Steppenwolf into national and then international prominence, as well has jump starting John Malkovich as one of this country’s leading actors.

Steppenwolf is reviving “True West” and the superior staging reconfirms the greatness of the play, preserving and sometimes even enhancing the merits of this classic.

Like several of Shepard’s plays, “True West” employs elements of American pop culture, especially the motion picture and the mythic power of the American Wild West. But those are garnishes on the central narrative, the portrait of two brothers locked in a complex emotional and psychological (and eventually physical) conflict. The play runs less than two hours including an intermission, but every minute is either intense, suspenseful, or scary, and often funny, brought together by a pair of riveting performances from Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood.

Photo Credit – Michael Brosilow

All the action is contained within a house about 40 miles from Los Angeles, during the 1970’s. In the opening moment we meet Austin (Hall) and his older brother Lee (Smallwood). Austin is a Hollywood screenwriter of moderate success laboring on what he sees is his breakout project. Lee is a drifter and small time criminal, an unexpected and unwanted visitor. Lee makes the audience nervous from the outset. He speaks quietly but he’s a coiled spring, oozing suppressed violence, intimidating his brother (and the viewer).

As the play progresses, there is a role reversal. The preppie Austin gradually turns scruffy and boozy, while Lee’s menace is dialed down as he catches the movie fever and determines to write a screenplay based on his own ideas. By the end of the play Austin has the upper hand, but the play ends in a silent standoff that suggests one or both characters may not survive.

The brothers in the 1982 production were played by white actors. Hill and Smallwood are both black, but the casting works beautifully.  There isn’t a whiff of political correctness but the sense that both Lee and Austin are outsiders in American society adds a layer of racial inflection to the character portrayals. Shepard’s language is deceptively straightforward, conveying some pretty extravagant action with an unforced naturalism.

Smallwood dominates the first half of the play through the force of Lee’s presence. The way he imposes his personality on his brother makes him the alpha male in the duo. Yet from time to time his Lee says or does something intelligent enough to reveal an inner depth to the man, while Austin’s role reversal as shifts the power balance between the two men. Smallwood turns Lee from a sinister and unpredictable thug into a more complex figure, a man with who has a dream kindled by the seductive force aura of Hollywood, especially after living in emotional isolation (he has spent the past three months living alone in the desert). The seduction of possible screenwriting success lays bare Lee’s yearning for success and acceptance at the same time Austin rejects the whole artificial Hollywood scene and pleads with his brother to go live with him in the desert.

Shepard injects bits of biographical information about the brothers, but we don’t really know their backgrounds, other than Austin graduating from an Ivy League college. The play takes place in the home owned by the brothers’ mother, who makes a cameo appearance at the end of the play. And there are references to the father, apparently an abusive alcoholic, but overall Shepard doesn’t provide much of a motivational back story. Austin and Lee are who they are, existing in two difference social worlds that finally coalesce by the chilling final blackout. The mother’s unexpected return from an Alaskan vacation is good for a few laughs but doesn’t illuminate why her two sons have taken such divergent paths in life.

The casting of Hall and Smallwood is physically interesting. Hall’s Austin is short and solidly built. Smallwood’s Lee is taller and more wirey, and the visual contrast helps establish Lee as the stronger force, at least until the worm starts to turn in the second half of the play. Lee made me edgy throughout the early scenes. But he shifts into a figure, if not exactly sympathetic, is at least more three dimensional as the play goes on, until the dramatic playing field is violently leveled by the end.

There are two other characters in the play, the mother, played by Jacqueline Williams, and the movie producer, played by the always reliable Francis Guinan, a wonderful caricature of the smarmy , outwardly hail Hollywood hustler who is pure shallowness.

Steppenwolf ensemble member Randall Arney directs the production with the insight that may have partly been nourished by his association with the 1982 production, where he replaced Guinan in the producer’s role. Under Arney’s sure but invisibly direction, the play’s dramatic arc doesn’t slacken for a moment, either in its intensity or its humor. The narrative unfolds with an inevitability that grabs the viewer without letup from its early verbal tensions to the wild physical mayhem of the final scenes.

      Photo Credit – Michael Brosilow

Todd Rosenthal’s single set recreates a typical California domestic environment that unobtrusively but convincingly serves as the locale for the dramatic and theatrical heat. Ann Wrightson’s lighting helps reinforce the play’s tension-filled atmosphere. Richard Woodbury’s sound design and original music flavors the action with guitar-heavy western music reminiscent of a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western sound track. Trevor Brown designed the period costumes. Ned Mochel is the fight choreographer and one has to pity the stage hands who must clean up the wreckage of props that litters the stage at the concluding blackout.

“True West” is a major building block in establishing the reputations of the playwright, the Steppenwolf, Chicago as a center for a new and gut wrenching style of theater, and John Malkovich as a world class actor. It’s a great play done in great style. After almost four decades, Sam Shepard and the Steppenwolf theater remain a perfect match.

‘True West’ gets a rating of stars.

“True West” runs through August 25 at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted Street. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $96. Call 312 335 1650 or visit

Contact Dan at                       July 2019

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