Tipping Point’s ‘True West’ explores complications of brotherhood
NORTHVILLE, Mich. – Tipping Point Theatre has a passion for reviving classic American plays that speak to transformational shifts in our collective psyche. True West, by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shephard, embodies the bleak, postmodern skepticism of the late 20th Century. More than that, Shephard imbues his characters and their stories with an irresistible gravitational pull that is the hallmark of great entertainment.
This play works like a Mason jar used to capture a scorpion. It lets us examine, at close proximity, something that both terrifies and fascinates us. We’re happy to tap on the glass to see what happens, but we don’t want to let out. In this case, the scorpion is that dark, violent, uncomfortable aspect of the American experience that hides away from polite society but is, in many ways, truer and more substantial.
This TPT production is a full-on sensory assault with hypnotizing performances by TPT Producing Artistic Director James R. Kuhl and TPT favorite Ryan Carlson. They play adult brothers still wrapped in the yin-yang of a childhood we can only imagine. Estranged for several years, the two are different in every imaginable way.
Austin, played by Kuhl, is the prototypical American college graduate. He lives modestly but comfortably, has a wife and family in northern California, respects the laws of society and state, and has found success as a writer of screenplays. When the play opens, Austin is house-sitting for his mother in the Southern California home in which he and brother Lee were raised. He’s using the place as a sanctuary to work on a new script that has already attracted an eager film producer, Saul Kimmer (Andrew Papa).
Lee, played with frightening conviction by Ryan Carlson, is a volatile sociopath who shows up unexpectedly and immediately begins interrupting Austin’s work – picking fights, taking offense at innocent remarks, and hinting at illicit activities that sustained him while living in exile in the dessert. He expresses himself physically – grabbing at Austin playfully or with threatening swings, hurling beer cans, slamming his fists into anything handy. He unexpectedly tears up, remembering the loss of his only companion, a pit bull that won him money in illegal dog fights. He is eerily defensive when talking about “the old man” – the boys’ derelict father who barely ekes out an existence somewhere in the dessert. And he makes it clear that he is casing the neighborhood for the opportunity to steal TVs and appliances that can be turned into ready cash.
Although Lee derides Austin as a phony Ivy League twit who doesn’t know a thing about “real” life, he is clearly interested in Austin’s writing. And although Austin resents Lee’s intimidating presence, he also harbors the unconditional admiration a younger brother has for an older brother. Austin envies Lee the life of a free spirit.
The play pivots when Austin asks Lee to leave the house so he can meet with successful film producer Saul Kimmer. Lee schemes to meet Papa over a game of golf and manages to pitch his own story, a modern tale set in what Lee calls ‘the true west.’
Andrew Papa avoids any pat stereotypes in his portrayal of Kimmer, giving us a likeable man who knows what he wants and how to turn it into box office gold, which he is willing to share in the form of an advance on a screenplay. He is charmed by the authenticity of Lee’s story and is flummoxed when Austin refuses to write the script for his brother’s story.
Without giving away too much of the story, the scenes that follow require and deliver some of the finest acting you are likely to see this year. As circumstances rotate, the brothers begin to swap their accustomed roles – with each dependent on the other to make the unlikely transformation possible. When the mother (Brenda Lane) returns home early and finds her tidy home in shambles, she registers shock but quickly slides into a calm state of denial that has served her well through the years. In this family dynamic, we see the result, if not the cause, of souls chafed and blistered by the familial ties that bind… and hobble.
Hillary Sea Bard directs this stirring production, which uses a tiered, thrust stage to make room for the brothers all-too-real fight scenes, choreographed by Melissa Freilich. We cannot help but wonder how Kuhl and Carlson will keep this up for the run of the show. The physicality of this production – the emotional violence that explodes across the intimate stage – is alarming and hypnotizing. We dare not blink for fear of missing something vital.
Set Design by Bartley H. Bauer perfectly captures the mother’s modest home, reflecting the progression of furnishings that originate in the ‘50s and have been optimistically updated and augmented over the years. Sound Design by Quintessa Gallinat provides the unsettling, ambient noise of ubiquitous crickets and killer coyotes. The design team also includes Rachael Nardecchia, Lighting; Natalie LaCroix, Properties; and Shelby Newport, Costumes, supported by assistant Lydia VanTol. Tracy L. Spada is the Stage Manager.
This play is not intended for audiences wary of darker themes or unsettling characters. But for those who seek a robust, authentic American drama, it doesn’t get much better than this production of True West at Tipping Point Theatre.