Every Sam Shepard play is chockfull of testosterone in the same way “Sex and the City” episodes ooze female hormones like lava spewing from an erupting volcano.
“True West,” the American playwright’s 1983 story of brotherly love and hate, is the rule, not the exception that makes Shepard one of the few modern writers who gets guys and refuses to sentimentalize their struggle to stay civilized.
Shepard’s male characters communicate in a way that women would call arguing. As adults in “True West,” the brothers battle and batter each other the same way they did when they were little boys. They’re constantly circling each other, evaluating one another’s weaknesses, preparing to pounce, then, pummel.
In the hands of the Belfast Maskers, “True West” could use another shot of testosterone. The production is a little too — well, wuss is probably the word the character Lee would use. His brother, Austin, undoubtedly would disagree.
The Maskers version of “True West” is by no means a feminized version of Shepard’s play. The threat of real violence simply is not palpable enough. The audience never believes that these men would ever really hurt each other and that is an underlying thread in much of Shepard’s work. As the homicide rates in Maine bear out — we mostly kill the ones we love.
Whether this is a result of Jeri Pitcher’s direction, the Maskers’ intimate three-quarter-round stage that makes for a very intimate setting or simply the director’s casting choices is not clear. Pitcher, the associate artistic director at the Theater at Monmouth, moves her actors about the small stage very well. The action, however, always is carefully contained to the stage and never threatens to spill out into the audience. It should.
Scott Anthony Smith is excellent as Lee, the uneducated, uncouth younger brother who has failed at everything but drinking and pushing his brother’s buttons. Smith looks a little like a fireplug, the kind of guy who played football or soccer in high school. He inhabits Lee as if the character were a favorite sweat shirt.
Smith is a menacing pit bull one moment, a persuasive con man the next. The actor is so good at disappearing into the character theatergoers can almost see the cogs turning in Lee’s head as he charms a movie producer into buying his unwritten screenplay.
James Clayton is Austin, the educated brother who left his working-class roots behind for an Ivy League school and a life lived by brains rather than brawn. Austin is in turns afraid of, angry with and nearly overwhelmed by his brother. Clayton is a tall, skinny guy who looks like he should have his head in a book.
What he never convincingly portrays is Austin’s capacity for violence. When he angrily waves his arms at Smith, Clayton bears a striking resemblance to a windmill waiving off Don Quixote’s faithful companion.
In a sense, the brothers switch places in the second act as Austin begins stealing to prove how low he can go and Lee struggles to write a screenplay. Clayton, in delightfully comic ways, shows how Austin can leave his egghead life behind but he never convincingly portrays the violence the character wants so much to mine and is so terrified of tapping into.
As the movie producer, Erik Perkins never finds the character’s smarmy center. Whatever accent he’s trying to use comes and goes but the way he whips those glasses off to express sincerity truly is inspired. Kathleen Horan’s brief appearance as the brothers’ mother is understated, but in one brief scene she captures a woman unexpectedly overwhelmed by her sons again.
The set and lighting by Kelly Marden work in the Maskers’ space but the kitchen cabinets and appliances aren’t real enough and the script demands that they be authentic. The wardrobe, credited to Horan, fits the 1980s setting.
“True West” is a wild roller coaster ride in two acts and by the second night of the run, the actors hadn’t quite found the rhythm of the piece. It moved in fits and starts. The ride most likely will be smoother, but no less wild this weekend.
Few community theater groups have the chutzpah to tackle Shepard, let alone the volatile “True West.” The Belfast Maskers deserve kudos for launching this production. The cast just needs to ratchet up the machismo a notch to send theatergoers home reeling from the ride.