By Roger McBain, Evansville Courier & Press
October 2, 2009
The coyotes howl in the darkness outside, killing a cocker spaniel every once in awhile, but the most menacing animals in Sam Shepard’s “True West” lurk inside a well-lighted, comfortably furnished, suburban Los Angeles ranch home.
Austin, a Hollywood screen writer who’s house-sitting for his vacationing mother while he works on a script, trips into a savage tango of escalating attacks and retreats when his estranged brother, Lee, a bullying hustler and thief, shows up unexpectedly after months of living out on the desert.
After an uneasy prelude, the two grapple through a shifting Cain-and-Abel choreography with some daring turns in the University of Southern Indiana Theatre’s anxiously engaging, 11/2-hour, one-act production of this edgy contemporary comedy. Elliot Wasserman directed the production, which played to an opening night audience of about 75 in the USI’s Mallette Studio Theatre.
From his first appearance, Jeff Dumond embodies the leering, sneering, intimidation of Lee, radiating a muscular menace in his slouch, his smile and his sarcasm.
Brandon Eck starts out as the quivering prey, hyperventilating a fear that you can feel in the front row of the black box theater as his brother maneuvers him into one corner after another. That makes his transformation all the more startling, when, pushed too far, he turns on his brother like a house dog gone feral.
Josh Smith moves with phlegmatic insincerity as Saul, the amiably schmoozing Hollywood producer who says he’s looking for an authentic contemporary Western, and Emily Kirk is the picture of shell-shocked dementia in her brief, but startling appearance as Austin and Lee’s mother.
“True West” centers, however, on Austin and Lee as they move through the brutal poetry, the cruel comedy and the absurd reality of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s story.
It all plays out with an in-your-face immediacy on Robert Broadfoot’s wrap-around staging, thrusting the audience into the arena of this savage contest. The stage’s updated props — a laptop instead of a typewriter, a plasma-screen TV instead of a tubular model — help keep the play contemporary, but they make you wonder at the rotary phone on the wall.
Michael Fohbieter’s sound design reverberates primal elements in the howling of the wolves and the chirping of the insects outside, and it resonates America’s Western mythology in its sound track of Wille Nelson and Kris Kristofferson songs.