Brothers Lee and Austin, played by Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano, time their interactions to inflict maximum distress upon each other. They use their differences to define themselves as men. As only family can, they know each other’s weaknesses and exploit them to elevate their perceptions of manhood. Sam Shepard's script wastes no opportunity to find humor alongside pain; Lee laughs with us as he relates stories of his failures.
The story follows brothers with different values suddenly forced onto the same path. Austin is a screenwriter with a respectable career. Lee is anything but respectable, drifting about the desert conning good people. The play begins as Austin house-sits at his mother’s home, and Lee shows up. First, they fall into a familiar pattern of tormenting each other and making peace. When Austin’s producer arrives, Lee cons him into replacing Austin’s storyline with his. This changes the dynamic, but it does not improve it.
Shepard is masterful at making us care about each brother. In Austin, we see a man who has followed the rules and been rewarded. He has a wife, a child, a career, and his own home and car, but we see only his vulnerability to loss. Lee can convince people to give him what he wants, but he has only what he has recently taken. His confidence is superficial. This drives the story and keeps the audience rooting for both of them.
True West's script emphasizes the duality of manhood. Who is more of a man? Precisely what does he say or care about? Lee and Austin are written to embody this duality from Shepard's real life. Just as a sibling is the truest mirror of oneself, the brothers are two sides of Shepard.
True West takes place in Lee and Austin’s mother’s house, so they are at once on neutral ground with respect to each other and filled with the emotions that come with revisiting childhood places. The set created by Mimi Lien is not their home, but it was. People revert to childhood roles in these situations, abandoning maturity for familiarity.
Costume design by Kaye Voyce supports the character development. Lee wears a classic bad-boy sleeveless undershirt, while Austin wears a button-down shirt. The audience knows them before they speak.
The acting makes the script real. Austin has been pushed by Lee all their lives. Lee uses various tactics, from persuasion, to threat, to theft. The minute he shows up, Austin is anxious, with good reason. This fear of the known is in Paul Dano’s voice, open stance, pauses, and the wary distance he tries to keep. Ethan Hawke’s Lee is anxious, too; he does not deserve Austin’s help, but he needs it. He physically dominates the stage, and by doing so draws us to him.
The directing controls the performance and brings us along as roles shift. In the second act, the brothers find themselves in each other’s shoes, which creates levity and anxiety about the unknown. Director James MacDonald keeps us trained on the brothers as they jeer, attack, and ultimately build toward a violent end. This is not a spoiler; violence simmers just beneath the surface throughout the play.
It is preference for the known that drives much of our lives. We draw comfort from the familiar, even when it is painful. It makes brothers take the same cheap shots at each other as they did as teenagers. Fear of something different can be greater than the fear of terror inflicted by someone close. True West shows us both, allowing us to reflect on our own fears and anxieties.
I give True West five stars for giving me a show I cannot stop thinking about. I recommend it for teens and adults. Do not see it if you are not ready to look in the mirror, because True West does not give you a choice.
Abraham Weitzman is a 15-year-old writer from New York City. He loves his family.
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