Lee and Austin are brothers, but you’d never guess it. Both have taken very different paths in life. Austin, the younger, went to an Ivy League school, worked hard to become a writer and has the traditional wife, kids and picket fence – the American dream.
Lee, the elder, has taken a wilder route – a life of alcohol, crime and often disappearing off into the desert. After five years apart, they are thrown together to take care of their mother’s house while she is away. Surrounded by memories of their imperfect childhood, the fierce competition and petty jealousies of siblings begin to curdle in the heat.
Thomas Larkin and Julian Curtis play Lee and Austin respectively. Their chemistry is phenomenal – together they create and maintain an atmosphere of palpable tension. Seeing them on stage reminded me of watching oil and water slipping around a pan – they never quite meet but each influence the direction of the other. Larkin’s Lee exudes power and absolutely owns the space, while Curtis’ meeker Austin has to carve out a pocket for himself without provoking Lee’s anger. Larkin plays Lee’s violent outbursts and repellent disregard for everyone else to worrying perfection. He portrays the internal frustration at the way he is treated by society, while holding it and its constraints in complete contempt. Curtis captures Austin’s wonderful complexities- for instance his ability to be equal parts intimidated by, concerned for and irritated by his older brother. Their relationship teeters on fear, jealousy and insecurities- deep down they both feel they have made inferior life choices. Austin wants Lee’s freedom, and on some level Lee wants the societal approval Austin has. The play also features Charles Allen and Christen O’Leary in smaller roles, but both make the most of the short amount of time they have on stage.
Aesthetically, the show worked incredibly well. Genevieve Ganner’s set was a warm coloured, comfortable kitchen straight out of the 1960s/70s. Combined with Dane Alexander’s soundscape, it gave a really defined sense of place. You could almost see the heat waves radiating off the set, and the feminine warmth and comfort of their mother’s house provides a starkly contrasting backdrop for the brothers’ aggression. Jason Glenwright’s lighting further encapsulated the tone of each scene and brought a little of the harsh outside environment into the confines of this family home.
I adored this show. I have previously seen this Sam Shepard play, but this production really captured both its humour and its darkness. True West works on many levels and will speak to everyone very differently. For me, it is an exploration of the cost that may be paid for freedom or for pursuing dreams. It’s also a comment on the place family plays in our lives; a reminder that the ties that bind us to others and to the past, might also bind us to who we are.
From the team that brought two seasons of Sex With Strangers to life, this is some of the best and most engaging theatre I have seen in some time. More please. Set your GPS and head True West.