by Sam Shepard
Directed by Robert Walsh
Featuring Todd Alan Johnson & John Kuntz
New Repertory Theatre
Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown MA / (617) 923 - 8487
Through Nov.20

Reviewed by Will Stackman

Everything except the kitchen sink is scattered about the stage in their mother's kitchen as two brothers battle to the death at the end of the New Rep's production of Sam Shepard's black comedy of ultimate sibling rivalry, "True West." The antagonists are hulking Todd Alan Johnson as Lee, the con man and drifter, and John Kuntz as Austin, an aspiring screenwriter. (Johnson has been previously seen as Sweeney Todd, MacHeath, and the Wolf at the New Rep. He has Broadway and national tour credits as well. Kuntz, normally thought of as a comedian, has appeared at the New Rep as Hamlet in "Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern...", as Estragon opposite Austin Pendelton in "Waiting for Godot, and in the title role of Scapin in the company's musical adaptation of Moliere's farce. He's also done major Shakespearean roles for Commonwealth and last year played Richard III in the Actors' Shakespeare Project inaugural production. His play "Jasper Lake", written while a B.U. Fellow, won honors at the Kennedy Center last year. Kuntz's considerable experience as a writer no doubt adds depth to his portrayal of Austin's frustration.)

Driving what little plot the play has is character actor Stephen Epstein as Saul Kimmer, a shady producer Austin has been developing a film project with. Lee moves in quickly to intimidate him into accepting a bogus story idea for a Western which of course Austin will have to write in place of his own work. And in the midst of the final trashing of her house, their mother, played by M. Lynda Robinson , who's seemingly worked with every theatre in town, shows up back from her vacation in Alaska. Mom provides a brief hint of the source of the brother's rootlessness as she surveys the wreckage she no longer recognizes. The brother's derelict drunken father never appears but in typically Shepardean fashion is always in the background. One of the author's most produced plays, though not quite his best, "True West" offers its two leads almost unlimited possibilities while creating this dysfunctional pair.

For this production Johnson and Kuntz have the expertise of director Robert Walsh as support. One of the area's premiere fight directors, a strong Shakespearean actor also part of the Actors Shakespeare Project where he appeared as Brutus last spring, and former Producing Artistic Director of the American Stage Festival in N.H., Walsh lets the play develop from its "theatre of menace" opening, with hints of Pinter, to its drunken and violent conclusion, highly choreographed and thoroughly convincing. His interpretation has an organic feel as it lurches from situation to unpredictable situation. Janie E. Howland 's extremely realistic set, an archetypical cookie cutter "ranch" helps, including views through the windows into a meager back yard. The New Rep wisely has not tried to effect Shepard's final metaphorical stage direction. Linda O'Brien, BosCon's Dance Theatre designer, provides appropriately refined lighting effects, which have Lee lurking in the darkness from time to time. Both designers get to stretch their abilities thanks to the space and excellent facilities of the New Rep's new home at the Arsenal Center for the Arts. Norton awardee Molly Trainer's subtle costuming is equally commendable, from Saul's beige suit and ornate white belt to Lee's desert grunge, all very '80s. Cameron Willard handles the sound design with its bits of music, coyotes, and imaginary crickets. And the unnamed props crew deserves special praise and probably overtime.

Twenty-five years after its premiere, "True West" has withstood the test of time. Technically set in the '80s, and perhaps written in reaction to frustrations from working in Hollywood, Shepard's metaphor at the heart of Lee's story idea, of two men endlessly racing across the prairie towards the sunset, rings true. Like many of this Pulitzer Prize winning author's insights, it is a uniquely American image, rooted in the fading mythos of the West. Drifter Lee's inability to fully express his vision, and urbanite Austin's pathetic attempt to understand it, is the real source of their unreconcilable antagonism. It is not farfetched to characterize this conflict as two parts of the author's nature perennially at odds. That Shepard's most recent work has a more overtly political tone might also be anticipated.

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