Sam Shepard doesn’t waste any time. A comfortable 1980s-style kitchen becomes, in the opening minutes of True West, a scene of brotherly discord, soaring hopes, dashed dreams, and sobering reality. Like the flaring of the opening match, the play starts suddenly and grows in intensity until it burns fully by the end, the hot flames of paper in a trash can literally wafting smoke through a packed theater. And when the flames go out, the darkness is just as sudden — no more comforting for the light not shed upon the disturbing substance of the story.
Two brothers, an Ivy League grad struggling to make it as a Hollywood screenwriter without ever having really “lived” and a small-time burglar who has tasted the blood and marrow of life but can’t articulate it, face off in their mother’s kitchen, while she escapes on a trip to Alaska.
The Ivy Leaguer, Austin (played by Todd Cerveris) and the thief, Lee (Don Harvey) clash awkwardly, as family members with a shared past but no way to relate in the present. In Lee’s words, he is a desert coyote, howling mournfully and terrifyingly all night long, while Austin is a city coyote yapping fruitlessly at the darkness.
The complexity of the characters is intense, and to watch the two establish their dynamic on stage is to be drawn into a tense cycle of violence and silence. “Lee’s like a tiger. He’s like a tiger who’s hungry,” Harvey says of his role: He has to be ready to pounce at any moment, but when the tiger smiles, it is possible for a brief moment to see a heart behind the teeth.
Shepard’s play takes on the cultural mythology of the West and rips it open, disclosing, cringing in the stage lights, tiny humans inside monstrous beings, pulling the controls like Pinky and the Brain inside large humanoid robots. It is a masterful play, rich with the juice of reality and glistening with the slick sheen of falsehood.
“Once it gets you into that world, it then begins to twist,” Harvey says.
He and Cerveris know this well — each has performed Shepard roles. Each also knows, from experience in film and television, that the sunny surf of Hollywood has a powerful undertow.
The two swap roles in True West — almost — as a man with whom Austin was hoping to start a project offers Lee a large screenplay deal. But now they need each other more, Lee at the typewriter and Austin drunk, singing, on the floor. They play off each other well, though Cerveris could stand to go drinking for real a few times — his lines are delivered far too clearly to be the insights of a real bumbling drunk, and he moves more like an old man looking for dentures than a person who will suck down the hair of the dog in the morning.
As Lee’s developing story becomes a chase scene, the drama of this Western–style play becomes increasingly tense. The rages, the double-dealing, and the no-good-dirty-scoundrel behaviors really begin.
The tension is challenging, and Harvey admits it is easier to perform the play than to rehearse it. Rather than stopping and starting to make small changes, the energy in a full performance can flow through the actors, allowing them to handle the randomness of 20 pieces of toast popping through several minutes, as well as the unusually challenging element of timing a champagne cork to go off just as the scene goes dark.
(It popped far too soon during the show I saw, and the actors grinned at each other, waiting to see who would cover it first. The moment allowed the real power of the actors to shine through — they were deep in character and immediately handled the situation as each character would have, though it raised the question of what would have happened in real life, whether the laughter would have taken over and the moment dissolved in shared experience.)
But the twists continue, tying the brothers into immobility. The mother (Barbara Mather) comes home early from her trip, because she missed her beloved plants, now dead because the brothers neglected everything but themselves, turning the kitchen into a wreck and never bothering to cover the evidence of their harsh reality, splayed out on the floor. Mom, clearly used to getting through chaos by diverting her attention, begins to prattle about insignificant nothings, unable to deal with the causes and certain outcome of her sons’ struggles for life.
By Sam Shepard, directed by Paul Mullins. With Todd Cerveris, Don Harvey, Ron Botting and Barbara Mather. At Portland Stage Company through Feb. 23. Call (207) 774-0465.