Eerie wails of coyotes, mixing with the ceaseless drone of crickets, might conjure up something of the old, rugged American West. But heard from inside a suburban Southern California home, those sounds merely serve to underscore the slippery realities in Sam Shepard's "True West," a biting play from 1980 enjoying a robust revival at Rep Stage.
Shepard, who died last year at the age of 73, had a particular knack for capturing what makes men tick — especially the kind of men, like those at the heart of this play, struggling with competition, communication, ambition, violence and who knows how many other issues.
"True West" focuses on two brothers brought together in an unlikely place at an extra-tense moment.
Ostensible family man Austin (Daniel Corey) is a screenwriter banking on a project deemed promising by a Hollywood producer. Leaving his family behind elsewhere in the state, Austin is writing in peace while house-sitting for his mother, who's off to Alaska on vacation.
Enter estranged sibling Lee (Tim Getman). A loner and a small-time crook, he's been living out in the desert and now rudely demands attention from a brother he hasn't seen in years. Within minutes, the gulf between Austin and Lee is revealed, a gulf that includes dueling perspectives on just about everything.
Hovering over that chasm is a character unseen in the play — their father, who has a thing for desserts and drink, and a little problem with teeth (a topic that prompts some of the play's dark comedy). If Lee takes too much after the old man, Austin isn't necessarily so far behind.
Old resentments inside the brothers bubble up. Each remembers everything the other says, ready to bring the words back at just the right moment for extra points. Still, something in their sparring suggests a modicum of lingering affection.
Any path to rapprochement, however, is threatened when Lee suddenly leaps into the Hollywood game with a screenplay concept of his own. The scenario is about two men warring across a forlorn Western prairie — "The one who's chasin' doesn't know where the other one is taking him," Lee says. "And the one who's being chased doesn't know where he's going."
Austin rejects it as stale, but Lee argues that "it's not a film, it's a movie. There's a difference." And that difference is enough to turn the tables and trigger what you could call the final battle of the brothers. You know they'll end up just like the men in Lee's story, but that doesn't spoil the emotional journey or dim the jolt of the last image in the play.
Directed at a good clip and with many a deft touch by Vincent M. Lancisi, Everyman Theatre's artistic director, the Rep Stage production makes a meal of the meaty material (involving a whole lot of toast).
Dominating Nathaniel Sinnott's spot-on set, atmospherically lit by Joseph R. Walls, is Getman's powerhouse portrayal of the volatile, sloppy, inconsiderate Lee. The actor makes every move look natural, especially in the second act, when Lee's frustrations are most heightened, his nerves at their rawest.
Corey offers a sympathetic performance, gradually revealing the discontent and vulnerability inside the slower-to-boil Austin. He and Getman set off fierce sparks in the final portion of the play, when the brothers — and their mother's home — undergo a seismic upheaval.
James Whalen does a supple job as Saul, the producer out for whatever he can sell for the most money. In a brief appearance as Mom, Valerie Lash looks self-conscious and lacks subtlety.
Well-timed snippets of music, evoking vintage Western movies (William D'Eugenio did the sound design), put a little extra flair into this muscular staging of a salient American play.
If you go
"True West" runs through May 13 at the Horowitz Center, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Tickets are $15 to $40. Call 443-518-1500, or go to repstage.org.