Humdinger Productions
True West

A play by Sam Shepard

Venue: Havana Theatre Dates: 25 April -10 May 2003
Producer: Jamie Norris

Reviewer: John Jane

Most of us are better acquainted with Sam Shepard as an actor than as a playwright. The fact is, however, he wrote many of his more interesting plays well before his 1983 breakthrough role as test pilot Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff”. It was as far back as the Summer of 1980 that True West enjoyed its first outing on the stage of San Francisco’s Magic Theatre.

True West is a good example of Shepard’s allegorical style of storytelling. He often prefers the use of symbols to soften the much in evidence naked realism. The storyline here bears little focus on verisimilitude, but is rather revealed in extreme relationship deconstruction and family conflict.

The story is driven by the malevolent relationship of two brothers, who come together to housesit for their mother when she takes an Alaskan vacation. Real-life brothers David and Gerry MacKay are cast as the dysfunctional siblings Austin and Lee. As with many sibling pairs, they are poles apart in temperament and character. Elder brother Lee is volatile and boorish. Austin, on the other hand is stable, and compared to the mercurial Lee, quite colourless.

While some initial tension is displayed, it's hardly more malicious than what we might expect from an "Odd Couple" routine. But the contempt the two have harboured begins to surface to reveal a more vicious side to their natures. Eventually we learn that the deep resentment is not so much for each other, but for themselves in the regret of their own choices and an envy of the other’s lifestyle. The action takes place in suburban Los Angeles in the late 1970s, but it could be just about anywhere, even in our home, right now. The message Shepard’s play offers is that there is something of Lee and Austin within all of us.

The dichotomy between these boys hardly needed visual emphasis, but Karen Mathews obviously decided to go for broke anyway in the costume selection. Lee dons a dirty old raincoat and a badly stained T-shirt, while Austin wears tailored slacks and a neat cardigan.

Shepard’s dark comedy may have been written for a small venue, and Jamie Norris makes this coup de theatre dovetail perfectly into the sixty-seat Havana theatre. Likewise, set designer John Taylor manages to recreate a typical suburban 70s-style kitchen and fit it onto such a small stage without it seeming at all crammed. There was nothing small about the performances, however; on the contrary, the proximity of audience to the players tended to make the acting at times overwhelming. Older brother Garry was especially guilty of overplaying his natural comic shtick. Unless one is offended by witnessing the abuse of a perfectly good portable typewriter, that may be the only criticism that could be seriously leveled at the production.

This may be the best live theatre deal in Vancouver. The Havana Theatre also houses an art gallery and restaurant, situated in the lively section on Commercial Drive, so one can take in this presentation, Marc-Luc Poelvoorde’s digital art exhibition, and have a great cappuccino brought to your table by a friendly server without leaving the building, all for less than twenty-five bucks.

© 2003, John Jane