Guess we’ll never know why Austin and Lee’s mom vacations in Alaska while the Lower 48’s at her feet. And May’s motives for wanting to tear Eddie’s latest fling to shreds? Apparently, they’ll die with her. That’s crazy ol’ Sam Shepard for ya – the famed playwright doesn’t necessarily fret about tying up loose ends, opting to go where the action takes his head and heart in the moment. He’s accordingly not the tidiest writer, but that’s OK. He’s certainly one of the most committed, lamenting to his depths the death of the American West as we once presumed to know it (“America is on its way out as a culture,” he recently told The London Observer).
Cygnet Theatre’s current programming is as much about Shepard as about his stories. Even as you note a certain incompleteness to his plays, you delight in the theatricality of his characters’ interactions. True West and Fool for Love, Cygnet’s so-called Shep-Rep entries, are vintage Shepard – for him, the West is the symbol of all America holds dear, and the characters are his illustrations of that symbol gone amiss. Add the production values on which Cygnet has built that part of its reputation, and this repertory program registers perfectly well.
You might say that True West‘s central character is a stolen TV. Grungy, dog-eared Lee ripped it off just as estranged brother Austin, mom’s house-sitter and a button-down aspiring writer who apparently moved West with nothing but a dream, is talking with film producer Saul Kimmer about the chances for his screenplay. Small-time crook Lee knows the desert well, having navigated it on his own (and presumably stolen his neighbors blind as he searched for his dad) for five years. And the TV is the precursor to Lee’s biggest score yet. Over an innocent game of golf, he persuades Kimmer to make a film he’ll write based on Austin’s outline. His idea, Lee insists, is more true to reality – and off come the brothers’ gloves as they acknowledge the colossal resentment over each other’s lives.
Stolen toasters, the house’s unutterable disarray, Austin’s near-murder of Lee and mom’s cavalier return from Alaska (she misses her houseplants, and Picasso’s coming to town) dot the landscape from there. The boys’ relationship has misfired from the beginning, Shepard seems to say amid the mess and mom’s disconnection.
The same idea (and desert setting) drives Fool for Love, although the real antagonist doesn’t surface until pretty late in the show. Childhood friend and sometimes lover Eddie is having no success persuading May to go back East with him and live in the trailer they’d always wanted, but May fears the same destructive cycle will set in – meanwhile, the mysterious Old Man, who’s in love from afar with Barbara Mandrell and whom it turns out fathered May and Eddie, had been an absentee parent just when each kid needed him most. Not only does he victimize himself amid his delusions; he purports to visit them on a hapless stranger originally there to take in a movie with May.
Love-hate connections are central to each play, and their adverse sides surface when the characters come to realize that they’ve been raised on a lie. They’ve known for some time that their senses of value and faith are grotesquely out of step with right living, and it takes a monumental event (Lee’s near-murder in True West, the bombing of Eddie’s truck in Fool for Love) to drive the sobering reality home. The promise of the American Dream is as big as the American West – but as the characters take their eyes off its reward and place them on the illusions of that outside themselves, the dream morphs into a life-altering nightmare. Family squabbles become affairs of life and death, mostly the latter.
Watch what director Sean Murray does with the scene in True West when Austin (Francis Gercke) and Lee (Manny Fernandes) trash mom’s house – in five minutes, this gem of an installment says more about the boys’ relationship than in all the years it took their estrangement to ripen. Jill Drexler is as detached a mom as you’ll find. Something rubs me wrong, though, with Antonio (TJ) Johnson’s turn as Saul Kimmer. I see the point behind Kimmer’s refined, reflective, quasi-artistic bearing and voice – but given Shepard’s worldview and the brothers’ mutual contempt, wouldn’t it make sense to portray Kimmer as one more load of fuel on the fire?
But Johnson is letter-perfect as Fool for Love‘s Old Man – the hard-bitten, hard-drinking character’s hollow heart races furiously as reality catches up, terminally colored by May’s (Carla Harting) and Eddie’s (Gercke) disillusionments. Fernandes’ Martin, May’s gentleman caller, makes a decent piece of subtext – Martin clearly doesn’t get out much, making his involvement in the Old Man’s denouement especially unfair.
Murray’s sets are typical for these plays, meaning they’re built to embellish the stories rather than make their own statements. The rest of the tech is fine too, and whoever came up with the intermittently flashing “No” on the vacancy sign in Fool for Love gets a special shout-out. Nice touch in that there’s an interminable interval between flashes.
Authentic approaches to Shepard require a certain youthfulness from the cast; the more callow the characters, the more room for Shepard’s discouragement to live. These stage personnel exude that and then some – their characters have suffered more slings and arrows than their ages betray, and so, presumably, has Shepard. True West is my preference between the two, but the rep program is well conceived amid the playwright’s fertile imagination and the double-sided coin that illustrates it. Very good.
This review is based on the performances of Oct. 5. True West and Fool for Love run in repertory through Nov. 2 at Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. in, oddly enough, Old Town. Tickets from $37. (619) 337-1525, cygnettheatre.com.