“True West” Draws Blood
Scratch the surface of “True West” and you draw blood. What at first appears a simple, dysfunctional family drama — the alcoholic, absent father, the distant mother, the sibling rivalry — escalates into a slow burn showdown with disastrous consequences. The play was presented by University of Idaho Department of Theatre Arts.
Pulitzer Prize Finalist
Written by Sam Shepard, “True West” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1983 and helped cement Shepard’s reputation as one of the greatest American playwrights of his generation. Shepard died in 2017.
Director Stephen John, a Master of Fine Arts in theater candidate in the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences, has a strong affinity for the script. He’s intimately familiar with the world that the play lives in – a California suburbia, 40 miles east of Los Angeles. John grew up in this area and received an undergraduate degree from California State University in Fullerton. He can remember the howls of coyotes, the morning ping of Rain Bird sprinklers, and the desert landscape morphing into townhouses and cul-de-sacs.
“Everything he describes, I’ve lived,” John said. “It’s so weird, the connections. It’s oddly nostalgic and makes me miss home.”
Rich in Symbolism
“True West” is quintessential Sam Shepard, who was known for his bleak, poetic plays, often laced with black humor. Shepard wrote 44 plays and earned 10 Obie awards for writing and directing.
“True West” resonates with Wild West symbolism, John said, including the tendency toward violence, the old frontier versus the new, taming the internal and external wild, and the vanishing American dream.
“The dream we grow up chasing might not exist,” said Todd Quick, assistant director and a faculty member in the Department of Theatre Arts. “We think of Hollywood as the American dream — but the reality is an illusion.”
“It’s complicated, which makes it wonderful,” John said. “There’s always a sense of discovery.”
A Cast with Chemistry
Playing the lead roles are U of I theater students Gerrit Wilford and Dan Cassilagio as Austin and Lee, brothers who harbor simmering resentments. Both Wilford and Cassilagio worked with John in September 2017 when they appeared together in “The Dumb Waiter.”
The brothers grapple with their place in a world that is rapidly eroding beneath their feet.
“They have a kind of chemistry together that you cannot not watch,” Quick said.
Rounding out the cast is theater student Carson Saline in the role of Saul, a Hollywood producer; communications alumna Rhonda Osborne as Mom; and theater students Tim Malm and Rhys Colson as understudies.
Osborne is a frequent performer at the Regional Theatre of the Palouse and appeared on the Hartung stage in “Conversations of My Mothers” in fall 2017.
“Having Rhonda is wonderful,” John said. “She grounds the play and brings experience and perspective to her role.”
Staged in the intimate black box Forge Theater, the audience will be right on top of the action and a hyper-realistic set designed by MFA candidate Jared Sorenson.
“The Forge is perfect for this,” Quick said. “There’s nowhere to escape the tension.”