Synthetic Unlimited’s latest production, “True West,” by Sam Shepard, once again demonstrates the chops of this robust troupe of theater people. For several years, they have presented plays of substance and do them very well. This current production continues to solidify their reputation as a group with boldness and energy.
This disconcerting black comedy is about the volatile rivalry between two estranged brothers who, over the course of several days, talk, drink, fight and make snarky comments to each other, all while house-sitting for their mother and trying to write a Hollywood screenplay.
Through these brothers, Shepard is illustrating two sides of our national psyche: Austin is the intellectual screenwriter, chasing the American dream of winning big, versus Lee, the hard drinking and lawless frontiersman. When Lee sells a screenplay, Austin drinks heavily and becomes aggressive, reversing their previous roles as successful writer and conniving drifter; each man even admits that he had wished he could trade places with the other.
Synthetic Unlimited has pulled off somewhat of a coup by casting two actual brothers in the lead roles. Not only that, but these actors will switch parts every other night. So one night Jimmy McCammon plays Austin—the younger, quieter, writer brother—and Danny McCammon is Lee—the unpredictable, more forceful brother. Then the next night, Danny plays Austin and Jimmy is Lee.
I saw the Jimmy/Austin and Danny/Lee incarnation and both actors nailed their parts. I laughed and was terrified, often simultaneously.
The cast is rounded out by Jeff McGivney as Saul, doing a nice turn as the film producer who initially works with Austin, but is then seduced by Lee’s glibness; and Corinne Gelfan, convincing as the brothers’ mother, who comes home near the end of the play to find a strange state of affairs.
Pam Hodges’ set design is evocative of a 1980s suburban kitchen, cluttered more and more with Lexis Larue’s many props as the relationship between the brothers deteriorates.
Director Paul Micsan excellently highlights the intimidating pauses and brooding menace, having Lee stare continually at Austin while Austin protractedly hesitates before replying. It creates a gripping scenario, controlled and exact, yet threatening to explode. Mixed into this tension are moments we recognize and laugh at, but our laughter is unsettled.
This is first-rate theater and shouldn’t be missed. It continues at the Synthetic Unlimited Opera House, a black-box theater on Joerschke Drive in Grass Valley, through June 28th.
Hindi Greenberg is very glad that she never had rivalries with her three siblings. Small competitions, perhaps, but not full-blown rivalries.