Sam Shepard’s play “True West” has been lauded as a masterpiece that addresses themes of sibling rivalry, family dysfunction, masculinity and the mythos of the Old West versus the genteelness of suburban life. All of that is in the script, somewhere, and Lansing Community College’s current production fights hard to make the work accessible. Some themes are more obvious and well-developed than others, yet the lack of clear character development leaves one wondering, “what was the point?”
The plot centers on two brothers, Austin (Daryth Lennox) and Lee (Wyatt Wesley), who are crashing at their mother’s house while she is vacationing in Alaska. Austin is a successful Hollywood screenwriter, and Lee is a drifter who has just re-entered the civilized world after spending three months in the desert.
Lee insinuates himself into Austin’s world when he successfully pitches a script to a producer (Gabe Weeks) with whom Austin had been collaborating. While the success invigorates Lee with the possibility of being taken seriously for the first time in his life, it shakes Austin’s view of his profession. As their roles reverse, the brothers’ relationship alternates between contentious and collaborative, culminating in an explosive conclusion.
The script is frustrating because there is very little backstory about the brothers and their childhood, which makes it hard to understand why they are so different, and where the tension and rivalry comes from. Late in the play Austin is eager to give up his cozy life as a screenwriter and abandon his family to go to the desert with Lee, but the motivation is paper thin. As the two argue about writing a script that the producer says has a “ring of truth,” the actual script of “True West” doesn’t ring true.
To be sure, the play does an excellent job in displaying the negative outcomes of toxic masculinity. By the end of the play, everything is destroyed — property, relationships and lives. This is where the LCC production excels: literally no punches are pulled in displaying the explosive violence coiled up inside the brothers.
This comes as no surprise, considering that director John Lennox is master stage combat instructor and fight choreographer. Wesley and Daryth Lennox energetically and realistically throw themselves into the physicality of their roles. Doubtless, these actors are suffering for their art and will have the bruises to prove it.
The production values are strong as well. Olivia Hines’ sound design is at first subtle, but as the tension mounts onstage, the subversive cackle of coyotes intensifies the anxiety of the situation. The ’70s décor of the kitchen and living room, designed by Bob Fernholz, is spot-on in its glorious orange and green tones.
“True West” does allow two male actors to go all-out, mano a mano onstage. That may be its appeal to actors, but audiences may remain a bit mystified as to the why, and wonder why they should care.
Friday, Feb. 28, 8 p.m.
Saturday, Feb. 29, 8 p.m.
$10, $5 students
Gannon Black Box
422 N. Washington Sq. Lansing
(517) 483-1546, www.lcc.edu