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‘True West’ Steppenwolf revival a powerful homage to the past, refreshing look to future

Playing Shepard well often requires playing two things at once, and I’m not sure I’ve seen that done better than here. 

Ensemble members Jon Michael Hill (as Austin, left) and Namir Smallwood (as Lee) in a scene from Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of “True West.”
Ensemble members Jon Michael Hill (as Austin, left) and Namir Smallwood (as Lee) in a scene from Steppenwolf Theatre’s revival of “True West.”
Michael Brosilow

We last saw Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood, two young Steppenwolf ensemble members, together onstage in “Pass Over,” Antoinette Nwandu’s contemporary take on “Waiting for Godot.” They were a compelling pair then, and their teaming in this production of Sam Shepard’s “True West” comes off so effectively that it’s impossible not to picture them as a frequent future pairing, an essential, craved-for duo for the next generation.

In Shepard’s story about the battle between art and commerce, or more specifically between reality and processed reality, the actors mine the subtle nuances and contradictions and humor of a sibling rivalry that gets explosive.

In that sense, this highly entertaining production is, happily, more about the present and the future of Steppenwolf artistry than it is about the past, although the past provides an awful lot of context for this show.

It was the company’s 1982 production of “True West” that first brought national attention, not just to Steppenwolf, but to Chicago theater as a vibrant acting capital. The televised “American Playhouse” version of that show, starring a young John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, was certainly the first time I, an East-coaster, became aware that something special was happening in Chicago storefronts. The current production’s director, Randall Arney, was an understudy for the original production and then played a supporting character when it moved to the Apollo Theatre for an extended run.

The play itself is almost certainly Shepard’s most broadly appealing work. Hill plays Austin, a successful, Ivy league-educated screenwriter. Trying to get a big project off the ground, he has holed up in his mother’s house in southern California while she is on vacation in Alaska. He is equipped with a typewriter (personal computers are still a few years away in 1980, when this was first produced) and some books for research about his unspecified period piece. He comes across with preppy propriety, with a strong part in his hair and dressed by costume designer Trevor Bowen in a mustard-colored cardigan, which certainly suits the yellow cabinets and kitchen wallpaper, radiating faded happiness, of Todd Rosenthal’s purposefully understated set.

As the play opens, Austin’s privacy has been punctured by his older brother Lee, played by Smallwood. He has returned from a long time in the desert, where their father lives. Lee is as disheveled as Austin is neat. The belt loops of his army-green trench coat don’t seem like they’re in the right place; the flashy, multi-colored shirt belongs in a nightclub where all the other attire says mud-pit, suggesting this outfit might just be his only one. He peppers Austin with bothersome questions while stalking the stage and consuming beer as if it was water, a comparison emphasized when he starts to treat a plant with his Budweiser. He tells Austin he’s back in town just long enough to make money by stealing from houses in the neighborhood.

Hill and Smallwood capture the sibling rivalry just right, with Smallwood covering up his jealousy with more-than-studied nonchalance, and Hill trying hard not to come across as condescending even as he condescends. When Smallwood’s Lee really gets pissed off, he resorts to physical intimidation, which works partly because the actor is so much taller, but also because Lee has a certain power over his younger brother, willing to do things that Austin would never muster the courage to do.

In a series of nine scenes, the dynamics shift and the tension between the brothers grows, particularly as Lee gets the opportunity to hustle his idea of a modern western movie to Saul, a Hollywood producer attached to Austin’s project. Playing Shepard well often requires playing two things at once, and I’m not sure I’ve seen that done better than here. Hill is able to convey Austin’s intense frustration even while outwardly trying to encourage his brother’s success, and Smallwood finds both the believability and the humor in a guy who’s a natural storyteller but is not meant for the writing life, distracted even by the pulsing crickets in Richard Woodbury’s sound design.

Lee (Namir Smallwood, left) confronts Saul (Francis Guinan)) in Steppenwolf’s revival of “True West” by Sam Shepard, directed by Randall Arney.
Lee (Namir Smallwood, left) confronts Saul (Francis Guinan)) in Steppenwolf’s revival of “True West” by Sam Shepard, directed by Randall Arney.
Michael Brosilow

Francis Guinan plays Saul, reprising a part he played in the production 37 years ago. It’s a great performance, and the aging of the character works just fine, although it changes the character from an apparent up-and-comer to a once-successful guy who has probably seen his better days.

Similarly, the casting of African American actors in this play brings freshness to some of Shepard’s lines. When Lee suggests that Austin “sticks out like a sore thumb” in the neighborhood and is as likely to get in trouble as he is, what might have been ironic comes off as a fair warning. And Lee’s recounting of Saul’s shock at Lee’s golf skills — the older brother’s hustle extends to the links — is far funnier with an unstated nod to racial stereotypes.

Even the thematic emphasis on the “real” versus the Hollywood version of the west takes on new dimensions when Hill starts doing an imitation of John Wayne. It brings out the layers at work here — the extent to which all westerns, and all genre pieces, are reflections of what’s come before as someone tries to refresh it with something new and “true.”

This “True West” has a lot of history and influence to reflect, but still comes off as new and true.

Steven Oxman is a local freelance writer.