Blog The Dark & Comedic “True West” at ATC

The Dark & Comedic “True West” at ATC

By Kathleen Kennedy. Originally Published in Desert Leaf.

Arizona is in for a true Western masterpiece this month when ATC presents the acclaimed Sam Shepard play True West, nominated in 1983 for a Pulitzer Prize and in 2000 for three Tony Awards, including Best Play, and two Drama Desk Awards.

Director Jenn Thompson brings a wealth of experience to her task. Nominated for a Drama Desk Award, she has directed plays on and off Broadway, as well as in theaters across the country. Raised in a theatrical family in New York City, Thompson, at age 10, played the original Pepper in Annie on Broadway. She would eventually transition from acting into directing.

Sibling rivalry is a given in just about every family with more than one child. Often the rivalries are outgrown, but sometimes they fester well into adulthood. Such is the case with True West characters Austin and Lee—the children of a violent, alcoholic father. Seemingly polar opposites, younger brother Austin is the respectable, stuffy, well-educated Hollywood screenwriter, while older brother Lee is the coarse, hard-living, alcoholic petty criminal.

Estranged for years, the brothers reconnect at their mother’s home in the California desert, where Austin is housesitting as he works on a screenplay, and Lee is there to rob his mother’s neighborhood. Not a great recipe for a touchy-feely reunion.

A thoughtful director who relishes researching her plays, Thompson says, “Austin and Lee are meeting at a time in their lives where they’re treading some old territory and old rules, and I think they end up going to a new place.”

Through a series of inopportune decisions, the two end up trying to write a screenplay together. It does not go well. Although they may bring out the worst in each other, familial bonds and brotherly horseplay still connect them, and at times they seem to switch roles, making for a fascinating dynamic. Thompson says of Austin and Lee: “The two men are quite different, but they end up kind of being the same. I love that idea of a sort of double nature, two sides of a coin. There are two sides of everybody, and their sibling rivalry is two halves of a whole.”

True West is a realistic play, but it is also mythological—dark but comedic, physical but cerebral. “It certainly is one of the most famous plays in the American canon, and I’m drawn to it for its very Americanism,” says Thompson. “It’s such a spotlight on so many things that plague and also drive our country’s consciousness. I think there are very few plays that are as poignant as they are entertaining, as dangerous as they are funny, and that demand a kind of physical rigor as well as an emotional rigor. It’s a great American play largely about the West. And doing it in Arizona, I think, is a blast that is going to be gripping and excellent.”