What does it take to unhinge us? Everyone has a breaking point; and there’s nothing like your nearest and dearest to know exactly how to take you there. Relationships that push buttons lie at the heart of Sam Shepard’s darkly witty True West, the play which sees Philip Seymour Hoffman returning to the STC’s directors’ chair.
It’s a story of brothers, one, Austin (Brendan Cowell), who seemingly has it all, and the other, Lee (Wayne Blair) who’s running on empty. Austin is a Hollywood screenwriter – the success story of the family, while Lee is a small-time crook who has spent months living a hand-to-mouth existence in the Mojave Desert. The two face an uneasy reunion when Lee drops around unannounced to their mother’s home in Southern California and finds Austin’s looking after the place for her. Austin’s hoping to get some quiet time to finish his latest script, which he’s sure is going to be a real money spinner, but Lee has other plans, crashing in and disrupting Austin’s precarious equilibrium.
The next hour and 40 minutes of intense stage time sees the two go head-to-head in an all-out mental and physical battle of wills – the way only brothers can. Blair is a wild, untamed brutal force to be reckoned with as Lee. He walks the delicate line between belligerent, manipulative abuser and happy-go-lucky opportunist in a way that elicits shocked gasps from the audience one minute and raucous laughs the next.
Cowell is unerringly “on” in all the right ways. From his timid facial ticks and agitated reserve through to his spectacular degradation as an alcohol sozzled, loud-mouthed loser who finds pleasure in the simple things in life – like toast!
Together, Blair and Cowell amplify each other’s performances to great effect in a perfect piece of casting that’s as good as it gets. Alan Dukes and Heather Mitchell lend suitable support in minor roles as film producer Saul and the boys’ mother respectively. And the whole proceedings whip along at the same exhilarating, breakneck speed as the two gooseneck cattle trailers chasing each other across the desert in the outline of the screenplay that Lee dictates to Austin, and which becomes the source of increasingly bad blood between the two.
Not an opportunity is missed in this super-smart production that takes advantage of set changes as emotional gearshifts. There in the fluorescent green in-between space we watch transfixed as Blair and Cowell prepare for the next onslaught egged on by loud jarring riffs from the rock soundtrack by Max Lyandvert. The set itself (Richard Roberts) a small kitchen/alcove space provides the perfect pressure cooker environment as Austin’s domesticated comfort zone gets blown to smithereens by a barrage of attacks from the unstable, erratic tornado that is Lee.
The wild west, the west of folklore and dreams, and the “true” west of ’80s America mingle and merge impeccably in this outstanding production that goes above and beyond all the hype to achieve something that’s truly extraordinary.
Sydney Theatre Company present
by Sam Shepard
Director Philip Seymour Hoffman
Venue: Wharf 1 | Pier 4/5, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay
Dates: 2 November – 18 December, 2010
This review first appeared on Australian Stage November 2010