Blog Review: Sam Shepard’s “True West” Truly Ignites the Arizona Theatre Company Stage with Equal Parts Violence and Humor in the Company’s Best Show of the Season

Review: Sam Shepard’s “True West” Truly Ignites the Arizona Theatre Company Stage with Equal Parts Violence and Humor in the Company’s Best Show of the Season

By Chuck Graham. Originally published by

Come for the energy (and the laughs) but stay for the artistic insight, that’s my advice when it comes to seeing Arizona Theatre Company’s bristling smack-down production of Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated True West.

I’ll guarantee you this – no one who watches this show thoughtfully will go home feeling short-changed. True West is the best ATC effort of the entire 2023-2024 season.

Lee (Zack Fine) and Austin (Rhett Guter) are two brothers who spent their whole lives taking different paths away from each other.

The tension they create face to face is high-watt voltage, not just the conventional kind of brotherly disagreements but that hold-your-breath-and-hope- to-die kind, right down to the last breath no matter how many kitchen drawers have to be pulled out and their clattering contents dumped all over the stage. That’s the energy part.

The insight part comes from several directions. For one, believing that always doing the right thing will always guarantee success is a strategy that can evaporate at any minute.

While living free without any responsibilities isn’t really free, as Kris Kristofferson noted in β€œMe and Bobby McGee,” it is logical to believe these brothers know that, too.

But Lee can’t help wanting his freedom. He’s the Bad Brother, always on the move, sometimes stealing things, whatever it takes to keep on keeping on.

Austin, meanwhile, is the good son, perennially making good grades, graduating from an Ivy League school, paying attention, never coloring outside the lines.

Because he is intelligent and focused, Austin is convinced the play he’s working on right now is the play that will make him famous. Austin even has a prominent producer, Saul Kimmer (Geoffrey Wade), who might be interested in turning the script into a movie.

Shepard the playwright could always create extreme tension by matching characters who can’t stop teetering on the edge of self-destruction. As intense actors, bearded Fine and smooth-shaven Guter know how to push those qualities into clashing sparks of flint and steel, igniting everything that’s psychologically combustible.

Jenn Thompson, the director, conducts this mano-a-mano duet of violence with a defiant demand the actors keep pushing themselves to stay alive at least long enough to finish the final scene.

True West takes place in a distant Los Angeles suburb defined by Alexander Dodge’s scenic design of an impeccably detailed early 1970s kitchen and living room where all the colors match and any speck of dust or grease would be banished quicker than the dish could run away with the spoon,

Somehow, at a time before the play begins, Lee has ended five years of misdemeanor wanderlust when he learns his mom has left her spotless home to enjoy some vacation time in Alaska.

Lee also knows his perfect brother Austin is there, house-sitting and working on his play. So maybe, Lee figures, while stopping by he could also rip off a few TVs and things from the unsuspecting neighbors.