Sam Shepard’s plays are famously all about man as a caged animal, prowling and brooding around his enclosure (usually a North American domicile), eventually tearing it apart like an untrained puppy suffering from separation anxiety. He is a man’s man’s writer, the lone wolf in the wilderness that so many young males fantasize about—even, it often seems, Shepard himself.
As his most famous work, one of Shepard’s Family Trilogy, True West is a great example: two brothers, Hollywood screenwriter Austin (Mike Ross) and the petty-thieving vagabond Lee (Stuart Hughes), somehow end up house-sitting for their mother while she’s on vacation in Alaska (though only Austin was asked to do so). It’s clear in the script that both men make solo trips outside the walls of their mother’s suburban home, but we never see them apart from each other. That’s because Lee and Austin are two halves of the same man. In fact, it’s common for the two main actors to alternate the roles throughout a run of the show.
In Soulpepper Theatre’s current production, director Nancy Palk makes sure the audience sees this right away. Dressed in pristine Lacoste polos and tennis shoes, Austin is the visual opposite of Lee, who sports a dirty white t-shirt, long leather coat, and, of course, a pair of worn cowboy boots. One is an uptight family man doing research for his new script, a love story. The other is a beer-guzzling, desert-dwelling guy with a story of the West brewing in his mind. Naturally, they each want what the other has. These underlying desires come to a head when a producer demands that the brothers work together to turn Austin’s half-baked cowboy drama into a cinematic masterpiece.
Upon Ken MacDonald’s aesthetically pleasing—but annoyingly perfect—suburban kitchen set, both Lee and Austin appear completely out of place. Even though that was probably the plan, simplistic performances by Stuart Hughes and Mike Ross quickly turn True West into a sitcom. Thanks to over-exaggerated sound and light cues (by Paul Humphrey and Graeme Thomson respectively) there are even commercial breaks built into the action, and there are more than enough knee-slappers to keep the audience from changing the channel. Though Hughes and Ross fall into a groove as their cabin fever reaches new levels of mayhem—involving golf clubs, a typewriter, and an army of working toasters (don’t go hungry, the smell is intoxicating)—the sudden arrival of their mother (an enjoyably oblivious Patricia Hamilton) breaks their momentum instead of speeding it up. True West is a fun night at the theatre, but would probably ring a bit false to Shepard.