Sam Shepard plays are a little like electric fences; by their very reputation they keep some people at arm's distance, while luring in those with a taste for electrifying entertainment. In Double E Productions' engagingly intense, darkly hilarious new staging of True West (an encore presentation of the production they mounted last June at Spreckels Performing Arts Center), actor-producers Eric Burke and Ed McCloud—with director David Lear—take masterful advantage of the intimate, enclosed environment of Sixth Street Playhouse's Studio Theater, literally inviting the audience into the play by placing a screen door at the entrance of the theater. You step inside and cross into the domestic battleground of two brothers, Austin (a brilliant McCloud, above left), a Hollywood screenwriter holed up at his mother's house in the midst of a SoCal heat wave and Lee (Burke, nearly combusting with hostility and envy), a bullying, beer-guzzling thief and drifter who has dropped in suddenly after a five-year absence. As the two brothers, Burke and McCloud are nothing short of amazing, building onto and delving deeper into the characters they developed last June, creating a play that is even tighter, funnier and more riveting than the first time out. The cast includes Al Liner as Saul, the producer of Austin's project, who becomes swayed by Lee's con man swagger to instead develop a story improvised by the near-illiterate interloper, and Lennie Dean (replacing Carol McRae), as the boy's domineering, mentally unstable mother, who can't understand why her sons hate each other so much, when it's clear that she's the reason.
The power of Shepard's work resides in his understanding of human nature and his skill at creating characters who reveal their inner natures slowly but clearly. In True West, Shepard has constructed more than just a stand-off between two frustrated men; he's created a veritable road map of self-destruction, and has somehow made getting from points A to B as funny as it is harrowing.
Since the play first premiered at San Francisco's Magic Theater in 1980, critics have argued that the play is about sibling rivalries, the poisonous nature of America's Western mythology, and the duality of human nature, while audiences see it as a rip-roaring, knock-down, drag-out fight between two brothers who are much more like each other than they'd prefer to believe. As presented by Lear, Burke, McCloud, Liner and Dean, this True West is all of that, bold, visceral and unforgettable.
True West runs Friday&–Sunday through March 22 in The Studio at the Sixth Street Playhouse, 52 W. Sixth St., Santa Rosa. $15&–$20. 707.523.4185.
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