Written by Patrick Chavis
The set comes straight out of a pristine 1980s catalog. Its picture-perfect kitchen is immaculate, right down to the old stove. As a nostalgic symbol, the kitchen appears to stand in for a sign of an America long since past. It is like looking at a piece of history through rose-colored glasses. But as the story unfolds, the kitchen, like the characters, transforms with the struggles and issues each individual has to deal with. In staying true to playwright Sam Shepard, Modjeska Playhouse’s version of True West pulls no punches in a heart-wrenching display of emotions.
Aside from the fact that it’s set in California, True West has very little to do with the west. As you undoubtedly gathered, the story is set in a 1980’s kitchen. As many Sam Shepard plays, it does not leave that location. Michael Kaye plays Austin –an up-and-coming screenwriter. The man is this close to breaking the deal of his career–but that would be too easy. So his brother Lee (played by Joshua Stecker) disrupts Austin’s life when he pops into their mother’s house in Hollywood.
In contrast with Austin’s somewhat cushy situation, Lee is a drifter who has been living a hard life in the Mojave Desert. Tensions are already high because of the different lifestyles the brothers have chosen. Austin is the good boy who did everything you’re supposed to do – went to college, etc. Lee is the bad boy and does whatever he wants. So when Lee gets the Hollywood writing deal Austin was supposed to receive, emotions erupt, and the audience watches as the façades of these characters are ripped off –leaving nothing but chaos and ruin.
The show has huge dramatic shifts between Act 1 and Act 2, and it’s essential to keep it as wide as possible to get the desired result. The challenge is keeping the pacing during the first act without being too calm. Though the energy was consistently malevolent from Joshua Stecker throughout the entire performance, Micheal Kayes, as Austin in Act 1, is slightly too reserved, in my opinion. However, it does lead to the desired result in the second act when both Kayes and Stecker are on point and bring their “A” game to this performance.
Still, I think the subtle performances need more feeling and a better sense of what the person is going through. You can tell Austin is annoyed by his brother in the dialogue, but you can’t see it on his face. It’s not there in his voice. Then the second act comes, and it’s so crystal clear. It’s powerful, and you feel it. Micheal Kaye’s imposing height and size bring out an exciting narrative in the story that is not necessarily in the text. But it’s about what we perceive and what is real. Although Michael Kaye–being much larger–would be considered to have the advantage in an altercation, when people’s personalities come into play, it’s a lot more complicated than that. As such, Joshua Stecker –though much smaller –does a fantastic job intimidating the much bigger man on stage.
They were only on stage for a short time, but Richard Hutchinson (Saul Kimmer) and Harlene Miller (Mom) performed admirably and kept the story’s flow moving.
The play is thick with dialogue, long pauses, and passion. Despite needing a little more gusto in the first act, I think director Joseph Alanes has not only done Sam Shepard right but has improved on the original source material.
It runs through August 27th
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