A Review by Tom Valentine
When watching Sam Shepherd’s play “True West”, the latest offering of The Cumberland Theatre, you know that it is only a matter of time before things explode.
If you think the relationship between Cain and Abel was bad, the brothers Lee and Austin collectively say, “hold our beer”….almost literally. But there is also that feeling of Felix and Oscar from “The Odd Couple” as they get on each other’s nerves and delight in their insults to each other.
This story of sibling rivalry gone crazy reaches new heights because of their bitterness and hatred. It is a brilliant study of the duality between brothers and sometimes within an individual. There is tension, raw emotion, sprinkled with guffaws and unexpected humor.
The two main actors – Seth Thompson and Bill Dennison – fill 2 hours with hate, love, talk, fight, and drink. They also follow in the footsteps of other famous actors who have played the roles, including Gary Sinise, John Malkovich, Ethan Hawke, Paul Dano, and Bruce Willis.
The character of Austin (Dennison) is diligently working on his next screenplay. He hopes that studio producer Saul (Tim Bambara) will run with his project, leading to more fame and fortune. When long gone brother Lee appears (Thompson), old hostilities and rivalries resurface. Austin wants Lee to exit so he doesn’t hurt his business meeting with Saul.
The mother (Luann Lancaster) later enters only to find her kitchen destroyed and her two grown sons fighting as children again. She has lost control of them years ago and can not regain it now. Her shaky grasp of reality surfaces with her desire to see an appearance by Picasso in town. She scolds her adult sons like a couple of kids, telling them to go outside if they are going to fight.
Seth Thompson is excellent as Lee, the Black Sheep brother. He is bad, loud, and intimidating as he guzzles can after can of beer. Thompson terrorizes his more scholarly brother and seems to delight in doing so. As uncouth of a character as he portrays, some of his more intimidating moments might be the slow fuse burning times when we are unsure if this is his nuclear moment or not. He confesses to his brother that he always wondered, “what it would be like to be you” and finally gets a chance.
As the more creative and organized family man Austin, Bill Dennison is also terrific. He is frustrated with his sibling and their relationship. Dennison becomes more feral as the plot develops and his screenplay writing becomes in jeopardy. He craves the free spirit lifestyle of Lee but has a wife and family obligations. His Ivy League education is ready to be trashed when he longs to escape and live in the desert. Dennison is quite believable when he becomes a drunk like his brother and the old man.
The kicker comes when we see the characters evolve and transform into one another. Lee wants the “fame without the effort” and touts a “True West” plot that just might interest Saul. A golf game bet with Saul has Lee now pitching his own script about the west, since he has actually experienced it. His idea of creating a “movie” and not a “film” makes perfect sense to him. Austin, the true “man of the pen” sinks more into despair and booze seeing his brother take away his success and steal his thunder.
The two supporting characters of Saul (Timothy Bambara) and Mom (Luann Lancaster) fill out the cast nicely. Both are perfectly cast. Lancaster is the hapless enabler and a mystifying mom. Bambara is a slick Hollywood huckster who is easily duped.
By play’s end, we are left with a fascinating and thought provoking evening of theater. It is raw, terrifying and entertaining – much like that train wreck that you can’t turn away from.
Co Artistic Directors Kimberli Rowley and Rhett Wolford have teamed up once again to bring another hit to the local stage. And we wonder at play’s end who is going to clean up the mess – literally and thematically.
Show dates are June 9, 10, 11, 12, 16, 17, 18, 19 with shows at 8pm and Sunday matinees at 2pm. Reserved tickets are available at cumberlandtheatre.com