The Mindblasting Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano Cave to Primal Hatreds and Private Desolations in Sam Shepard’s ‘True West’
True West by Sam Shepard is a tour de force which easily reveals actors’ talents or their infelicities. Indeed, it may be a devastating on-stage nightmare if the actors’ skills do not resonate with a fluid “moment-to-moment” dynamic that sits precariously on the knife-edge of emotional chaos and crisis. This is especially so in Act II of Shepard’s True West which is currently in revival at the American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street, starring the consummate Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano. Both actors rise to the pinnacle of their skills surfing their own moment-to-moment impulses in this sense-memory tearing, emotional slug-fest of a play about siblings. This is a glorious, shattering production thanks to Hawke and Dano who once more prove to be among the great actors of their generation. If Shepard is apprised of this production in another realm of consciousness, surely he is thrilled.
The arc of True West‘s development reveals Shepard’s acute examination of brothers Lee and Austin who wrangle and rage against each other to finally emerge from the emotional and familial folkways they’ve spun into their own self-fabricated prisons. The second act especially (the first act is more expositional and slower paced) screams with the taut, granular impact of subtly shifting, increasingly augmenting collisions of the mind, will and emotions of the older, social outcast and thief Lee (portrayed with dark tension, authenticity, humanity by Ethan Hawke) and the younger, ambitious, middle class Austin (the “mild-mannered” Dano seethes with fury and sub rosa angst that simmers to a boil). As these two attempt to reconnect after an estrangement, they thinly reconcile, negotiating confrontation and abrasion, while they attempt to deal with personal dissatisfaction. During their reunion, they discover that too far is never far enough to unleash the emotional convolutions, chaos and conundrums of their relationship.
Of course, Shepard’s searing, dark humor and sardonic irony resides in Lee’s and Austin’s attempt to achieve an inner and outer expurgation. Interestingly, they use each other’s “being” as a battering ram against themselves and their complex, twisted “brotherhood.” And as they pummel and propel themselves “forward” through the charged, electrified atmosphere between them, they disintegrate their inner soul rot and misery. By the conclusion of the play, they have reached their own TRUE WEST. This is brilliantly symbolized and effected by Jane Cox’s Lighting Design, Mimi Lien’s Set Design and Bray Poor’s Original Music and Sound Design.
In the last moments between life, death and resurrection, Lee and Austin stand on the edge of a precipice eyeballing each other with uncertain respect and caution as they assess who they are and what they have wrought together. We realize that they have sought this desert of their creation. That they, by primal impulses, destroyed and trashed everything around them including some of their mother’s prized possessions to get there, is unfathomable to us. It is incomprehensible unless we examine our own self-destructive behaviors. However, their behavior is an achievement necessary to get to who they are. At the least they’ve shed pretense. They are raw creature/creations like the the yapping coyotes that lure pets, grab them and chow down for supper. However, where these characters go from this still point remains uncertain. But the hope is that it will result in a new identity for each, away from the annihilation and alienation of the parents who raised them.
Though Shepard’s play is set in the distant past, the themes and relationship that Hawke and Dano establish is vital, energetic, heart-breaking, mind-blowing, current. Each actor has brought so much of his own grist to Lee and Austin and responds with such familiarity and raw honesty to the other, it is absolutely breathtaking. It remains impossible not to watch both and be in awe of their craft. One is utterly engaged in the suspense of where the brothers’ impulses will take them as they scrape and claw at each other’s nerve endings to create bleeding wounds.
Thanks go to James Macdonald’s direction and staging to facilitate Dano’s and Hawke’s memorable portrayals. With extraordinary performances like theirs, we are compelled to consider the characters, and determine how and why they are smashing each other’s personal boundaries to reveal inner resentments, hurts, and the chaotic forces that have swamped each of them in the most particular ways. The ties that bind them run so deep these two are oxymorons. They have identical twin souls, though they are externally antithetical. Why they clash is because they are like minded: raging, though controlled. Their emotions, like subterranean lava flows wait for the precise moment to explode and change the landscape around them. Lee is the more mature volcano; but his earthquakes create the chain reaction that stirs Austin’s. No smoke and mirrors here; just raw power.
As a perfect foil to spur the play’s development Gary Wilmes portrays Saul Kimmer, the producer hack who smarmes his way into Austin’s heart, then dumps him because he will not exact a devil’s bargain which Austin refuses to accept. Austin’s rejection of the “bargain,” enragese Lee. Wilmes is appropriately diffuse and opaque. Where does he really stand? What happened to make him turn on a dime regarding hiring Austin who has invested sweat equity and emotional integrity in a project Kimmer professed interest in? Wilmes is both authentic and the Hollywood “type,” to drive Lee and Austin against each other.
Likewise, as a foil, Marylouise Burke is LOL hysterical but frightening as their quirky mother. Her responses to their behavior are hyperbolic in the reverse and they speak volumes about how this family “functioned” in the past. She, too, helps to engine the suspense as Austin takes his power over Lee and she remains sanguine. All of the audience who are parents and especially those who have avoided the role are screaming silently in horror as the two “have at one another.” The situation and their confrontation is insane and humorous. Burke is perfect in the role as non-mediator. And Macdonald has done a magnificent job of balancing the tone and tenor of the last scene. As a result, Burke, Hawke, Dano deliver the lightening blow that helps us to realize the brothers’ intentions and the result of where they find themselves at the finale.
So much of the production resides in these incredible portrayals, of Lee and Austin’s devolution into the abyss to come to an epiphany. Caught up with that, one may overlook the artistic design. But it is so integral for it reveals the family and reflects the dynamic interactions. Superb, for example are the sound effects which augment in intensity, the frame of lights contrasting the stage into darkness for set changes, the homely, well-ordered kitchen and alcove writing area, the lovely plants and their “growth” (a field-day for symbolists), and the props. The toasting scene is just fabulous. Kudos go to Mimi Lien (Set Design) Kaye Voyce (Costume Design) Jane Cox (Lighting Design) Bray Poor (Original Music & Sound Design) Tom Watson (Hair & Wig Design) Thomas Shall (Fight Choreographer).
Sam Shepard’s play is a powerful revelation of brotherly love and hate, its design and usefulness. At the heart of our global issues resides familial relationships. To what impact on the whole is the sum of its parts? To what extent do families foment their own hatred upon themselves and the culture to exacerbate the issues? Likewise, what of families who love each other? The interplay between families and society is present but understanding it remains elusive and opaque. Shepard attempts clarity. Certainly, Lee points out that family relationships are high stakes and sometimes the warring relatives kill each other. Certainly, Austin points out that he and Lee will not kill each other over a film script. But he underestimates how far he or Lee are willing to go. How far are any of us willing to go if pushed by a relative?
Life’s uncertainty, as in the best of plays is all about surprise and not knowing what will happen in the next moments. This production of True West lives onstage because the actors are immersed in the genius of acting uncertainty that is always present. Most probably, their performance is different daily because the actors have dared to breathe out the characters whose souls they have elicited. Just W.O.W! (wild, obstreperous, wonderful)
Secrets are the bricks that layer the foundations of family histories. Such secrets may serve as supportive bonds to keep a family together through trials and catastrophes. They may spur families to create protective walls against a foreboding and nullifying social order. They also may imprison family members in a bottomless well of pain. What is hidden often then develops a dark, spiritual life of its own to create havoc until family members finally confront its reality.
Sam Shepard’s profound, Pultizer Prize-winning tour de force Buried Child is The New Group’s new production directed by Scott Elliott, currently at The Pershing Square Signature Center. It explores the devastation when what lurks underneath becomes an implement family members use to hack at each others’ souls. As they provoke one another and stir up whirlpools of misery, what has been concealed is eventually unearthed and they must confront the fear of its loathsomeness. Only then can they employ their strength to either reconcile with the past and heal, or die.
At the outset, we are introduced to the paterfamilias, Dodge (ironic name choice), sitting on the sofa as if he occupied this space without purpose and there is nowhere else for him to go. Dodge (Ed Harris) is nearly invisible.
Certainly he melds into the shabby interior of the house and the worn furniture. Except for the occasional cough and accompanying sip of whiskey from a bottle he hides under his blanket, we wouldn’t notice anything significant about his presence until he converses with his wife Halie (Amy Madigan), who is upstairs getting ready for an outing. Their exchange becomes funny when Dodge mocks her pretensions and her suggestions, i.e. for their son Bradley to cut Dodge’s hair, which Bradley always butchers. Dodge’s wit and clever personality indicate that though he may now appear to be down-and-out, he once may have been a man to be reckoned with. He well plays the role of nagged husband, tolerant of Halie’s persistent, shrill commentary about everything from the weather to son Tilden, who makes his entrance soon after Halie tells Dodge to take his pill.
The brilliance of this play is in its suggestive, interpretative aspects; it is opaque and ambiguous, yet clearly sounds a bell of alarm. Characters present bits and pieces of information like a reversed puzzle. Truths slip in and out like whispers. Unveilings abide in the off-beat comments and actions of Tilden (a terrific Paul Sparks) and Bradley (the fine Rich Sommer), and in the contradictions posed by Dodge about the past and present. Glimmers of light reveal key themes about the flawed nature of human beings and their unsatisfying relationships, of the oppressiveness of fearful secrets that are not allowed to be uttered or expurgated, of the resulting soul sickness that chokes off vitality.
As Shepard brings this family to us through their conversations and clashes, we divine the background story, of a brokenness that overwhelms all of the sons and Dodge, and of a protective, hard lacquer that glistens from Halie’s persona as she steps quickly through time without looking to the right or left and especially not into the past.
Tilden, once an All-American halfback, is child-like, dense, withdrawn: these may be weaknesses caused by that “trouble in Mexico” a while ago. The obstreperous Bradley was careless with a chainsaw and chopped off his leg.
Bradley’s movement “to go far” has ended; he must wear a prosthetic device to go anywhere. The most promising son, Ansel, died in the military, and Halie, who meets with inoffensive, smarmy Father Dewis (Larry Pine) to discuss the placement of his statue in the community, brings the priest in for tea and stirs havoc. Clearly, Halie has sought religion to stave off the darkness.
Shepard’s writing is precisely rendered. He wanders his characters through a filtered catastrophe that they have long suppressed. Their meanderings with each other are filled with humor, thematic layers, poetry, and symbolism. The dramatic action is interior; when Tilden, Bradley, or Halie appear, disappear, and interact, the molecules have been stirred, the atmosphere changes, and tensions strain. There is the sometimes gentle, sometimes antagonistic sparring among the four. And Dodge is central; he grounds all who enter and leave with brusque ease. He is the family linchpin, and only he will be able to exhume what sickens in all of them when the time is ready.
Shepard’s grand metaphor of the harvest, sown in the past and now ready to be picked and enjoyed, is spiritual, interpretive, and surreal. It is a harvest seen and recognized by some in the family and not others, much as truth and circumstances are perceived and interpreted individualistically. Shepard combines this metaphor with an even greater one, a human embodiment of the harvest in the characterization of Vince (Tilden’s son whom no one initially acknowledges or seems to remember), and his girlfriend Shelly (Taissa Farmiga is appropriately sharp and intrusive), whose curiosity eventually prompts Dodge to reveal that which has been rotting the foundations of their family relationships and particularly Dodge’s soul.
That Vince (a portentous and dangerous Nat Wolff) and Shelly appear at precisely the right moment when the crops are ready to be harvested is a singular mystery answered by the play’s conclusion. Dodge finally discloses the secret of the fields and acknowledges that he is no longer afraid; it is then that the reckoning comes. Shepard emphasizes in Buried Child that there indeed is a season for everything. And regardless of whether we want to acknowledge it, the ripeness of fulfilled truth eventually is visited on a family, though it may skip a generation or two.
This is a magnificent production, prodigiously acted by the ensemble cast and brilliantly conceived, staged, and designed by Scott Elliott and his team. The production throbs with tension. The undercurrents vibrate throughout. Above all the character portrayals balance evenly to create a living portrait of the poignancy of human families.
Ed Harris resides in Dodge with sustained concentration and moment-to-moment precision, even as the audience shuffles in and fumbles around for their seats (before the play begins). Harris embodies the character’s rough-edged, blunt and ironic persona and it is difficult to take one’s eyes off of him. His seamless sliding underneath Dodge’s skin is without equal. Amy Madigan as Halie is his perfect counterpart, striking and glorious one moment and in the next shrew-like and high-pitched as if stretched to the point of breaking.
Indeed, Elliott has guided this cast into taut perfection; Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Paul Sparks, Taissa Farmiga, Rich Sommer, Nat Wolff and Larry Pine would not be as alive in their characters as they are if the balance and the pressure were not tuned to a proper pitch by each actor’s work.
Buried Child is beyond memorable. It is is one for the ages. The New Group production runs until April 3 at Pershing Square Signature Center.