After 37 years, Steppenwolf confronts ‘True West’ once more
Director says the revival of Sam Shepard’s sibling rivalry story, a crucial work in the company’s history, is meant to “kind of tie the old and the new together.”
In 1980, Lanford Wilson’s “Balm in Gilead” proved to be the gritty, ensemble-driven vehicle that made audiences sit up and take notice of the fearless energy of the young ensemble at Steppenwolf Theatre. Artistic director Gary Sinise knew he was on to something and began looking for a play that would keep that momentum going.
That search led to playwright Sam Shepard and “True West,” a partnership that resulted in a now legendary 1982 production that took the company to New York and put it on the national map.
In the ensuing decades, as it built on a desire for artist-driven theater defined by innovative work, Steppenwolf has never looked back. Until now, that is. As the current season comes to a close, Steppenwolf takes another look at “True West,” now considered an American classic, through the eyes of younger members of the ensemble.
When: To Aug. 25
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted
The historic and contemporary importance of Steppenwolf’s connection to “True West” will be discussed at an event at 7 p.m. Aug. 5 with Randall Arney, Francis Guinan, Jon Michael Hill, Namir Smallwood and Jeff Perry. Tickets are $40.
In this tale of sibling rivalry, Namir Smallwood and Jon Michael Hill star as combative recluse Lee and aspiring screenwriter Austin, the roles made famous in the New York staging by John Malkovich and Gary Sinise (future “Scandal” star Jeff Perry starred as Austin in Chicago). Frances Guinan reprises his role as sleazy film producer Saul from the initial production; Jacqueline Williams plays the mother of the conflicted brothers.
Ensemble member Randall Arney, who replaced Guinan when the ’82 production moved to the Apollo Theatre for an extended run, directs the restaging.
“It’s such a treat to dig back into the play,” Arney says. “And a great opportunity for some cross-pollination between the young and the old members of the ensemble to share stories and kind of tie the old and the new together.”
Arney, a former artistic director at both Steppenwolf and Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse, has often staged works by Shepard, but this is Hill and Smallwood’s introduction to the Pulitzer Prize winner’s work. Neither is intimidated by the storied performances of the past production.
“We are approaching it the only way we can, which is with fresh eyes,” says Hill, a star of the CBS drama “Elementary.” “It’s exciting to work with Randy, who’s familiar with both the playwright and the material.”
Arney says he reread the play with “brand new eyes. It’s like getting reacquainted with someone you used to know a long time ago and realizing they’re a whole new person.
“A role is always where a playwright meets the actor, where Sam meets these specific guys in 2019 is very different from 1982. It’s great to see these young actors come in and chew it up.”
Shepard, whose plays ranged from the mainstream to the experimental, always took risks. His vision of family, home, success and identity was often mysterious, surreal and violent.
Both Hill and Smallwood give knowing laughs when asked about the physicality, which runs rampant in the play’s second act. “There’s a realness to it, a truth that you have to get to the bottom of,” Smallwood says. “It’s a crazy exploration of brothers and family dynamics and being human.”
Adds Arney: “Sam has such an incredible way of being so physical and so muscular and yet so lyrical with the language as well. It’s just a great ride for many reasons: It’s incredibly dangerous and incredibly scary at times and also incredibly funny at times.”
Prior to the success of Steppenwolf’s New York production of “True West,” critics panned an earlier staging at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, starring Peter Boyle and Tommy Lee Jones. Shepard too was unhappy with the result. But the Steppenwolf hit would revive perceptions of the play and lead to a long relationship between Shepard and Steppenwolf, where five of his plays have been staged, often with input from the playwright.
Arney feels Shepard, who passed away in 2017, would be intrigued by the new production.
“We’re taking ‘True West’ and blowing the dust off of it and seeing what it is now,” he says. “When we first did this play, it was brand new, and it’s so cool to come back to it now and see how it holds up and remains relevant. Typewriters and wall phones may have moved along, but what he’s tapped into between brothers and about family is so universal and so present.”
Mary Houlihan is a Chicago freelance writer.