Blog Review: Powerful acting, set elevate Arizona Theatre Company’s “True West”

Review: Powerful acting, set elevate Arizona Theatre Company’s “True West”

By Ann Brown. Originally Published by the Arizona Daily Star.

Arizona Theatre Company’s production of Sam Shepard’s True West is a powerful, poignant portrayal of family dysfunction and sibling rivalry punctuated with laugh-out-loud humor.

True West which opened Friday, May 3, closes the ATC season on May 18.

Prolific playwright Shepard (1943-2017) is known for his gritty, edgy works. True West was nominated in 1983 for a Pulitzer Prize. It has a tense, taut narrative underpinned by Shepard’s past — he and his father battled alcoholism.

The set’s harvest gold cabinets, avocado green appliances, large pattern wallpaper and the fringed, flower-power design vinyl tablecloth transport the audience into a kitchen and dining room from the late 60s and early 70s where Austin (Rhett Guter) is tending his mom’s precious plants at her Los Angeles-area home while she’s vacationing in Alaska.

Ivy League grad Austin, whose wife and children are 500 miles away, is tapping on his portable typewriter, working on a screenplay that he hopes will be a major step in his career. Brother Lee (Zack Fine), who hasn’t spoken to Austin in five years, has just arrived at their mom’s house because he plans to prowl the neighborhood and steal a few items from nearby homes. Back from months spent in the desert, Lee, wearing a worn, long jacket over a sleeveless T-shirt, exudes a vagabond vibe. You can almost smell the sweat.

Producer Saul Kimmer (Geoffrey Wade) comes to the house to meet with Austin to discuss the promising romantic period-piece Austin has been working on. Lee inserts himself into discussion and invites himself to golf with Saul. Lee pitches Saul an idea for a movie after an impressive shot on the green and Saul switches gears to support Lee’s idea with Austin writing the screenplay. Austin is dejected; he can’t write both projects.

Years of estrangement, competition, anger, envy and rivalry — and plenty of alcohol — percolate into a dynamic power struggle and an exploration of how two brothers can be so different, yet so similar. Shepard’s wit and dark humor pepper the entire play.

Guter and Fine are strong and believable as Austin and Lee. Throughout their verbal roughhousing, Fine is menacing and Guter maintains his composure until their positions swapped. The physicality of the actors — they fall, slip, slide and smash things — is exceptional. Director Jenn Thompson has the twosome effectively use the entire stage and the carefully curated props.

Amelia White as the mother makes a short, albeit important appearance. White projects a cool distance and indifference that adds depth to the brothers’ conflicts. Wade is solid as Kimmer. His costume and appearance scream “hustler.”

The rich details of the set by scenic designer Alexander Dodge and costumes by designer Alejo Vietti create a sense of time and place. No detail is overlooked. Check out the vintage athletic shoes Guter is wearing.

Shepard wrote 50-plus plays and won the Pulitzer Prize for Best Play in 1978 for Buried Child. As an actor, Shepard was nominated for an Academy Award for his work in “The Right Stuff” in 1983 and had memorable roles in 25-plus films.