Sibling rivalry on display in Acrosstown’s ‘True West’

“True West,” Sam Shepard’s play about two brothers, with Mike McShane and George Steven O’Brien, opens Friday at the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre. (Submitted photo)

Published: Thursday, August 21, 2014 at 8:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 20, 2014 at 10:12 a.m.

Prepare to watch two brothers duke it out onstage when a Hollywood screenwriter is visited by his drifter brother in Sam Shepard’s “True West,” which opens Friday at the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre.

Co-directed by Mike McShane and George Steven O’Brien, “True West” continues through Sept. 7. A preview performance, with tickets available at half price, begins at 8 tonight.

McShane, who also plays the younger brother, Austin, said the story is set in their vacationing mother’s quaint southern California home, where it follows the trials and tribulation of the quarreling brothers.

“Austin is a screenwriter (and) Lee is a drifter, who comes across his brother at his mom’s house where Austin is busy working on a screenplay that he is going to (share) with producer Saul Kimmer,” said McShane, whose father, Shamrock McShane, plays the Hollywood producer.

“The play is about the real west, which turns out to be the interior psychology of two brothers, Austin and Lee,” said Shamrock McShane. “I kind of picture Sam Shepard writing this play, dividing himself in half.”

“It has a lot of traditional Sam Shepard themes going on there ... the conquest of the West, and what the United States was really built on, and the kind of mythology that we use to gear ourselves up to face reality and turn it into Hollywood blockbusters,” he said. “I think that’s kind of what the play is all about ... trying to get to the bottom of what’s really inside this country and what’s really inside these characters,” said Shamrock McShane, who has who has been in more than 30 Acrosstown Repertory Theatre productions since 1983.

An Ivy League-educated screenwriter, Austin becomes infuriated with his brother when the producer abandons Austin’s project and buys into Lee’s story, Mike McShane added.

“Austin’s (screenplay) is a simple little love story ... compared to Lee’s screenplay, which is about two guys chasing each other across what he labels as the ‘panhandle of Texas through Tornado country,’ ” Mike McShane said. “We’ve got very interesting tricks that George is going to do in this play, to make it really seem like the audience is there in the house with the brothers. Over the course of the play, the two quarrelling brothers pretty much demolish the entire house.”

George Steven O’Brien, who plays Lee, the older brother, said toward the end of the play the set becomes a disaster area.

“A lot of chaos goes on throughout the play ... the tension builds. Outside the entire play you’re going to hear crickets and coyotes. As the play goes on they get more and more intense,” said O’Brien, who acted alongside the McShanes in the Acrosstown’s production of “Death of a Salesman.”

O’Brien added that he is also doing something taboo with Lee’s character in the production.

“I’m changing him a little bit. He is an aggressive type of bully, and pretty much an opportunist. I’m playing Lee more as a burnout ... he is unbalanced (and) lives in two worlds,” O’Brien said. “He is desperately trying to make his way in the real world but nothing makes sense to him. He just can’t stay within the boundaries of society.”

Carolyne Salt, who plays the mother, said people should come out and see “True West” because it is a rare, transformative play.

“If you like dark humor, this is the play for you; it’s hard not to laugh as everything is falling apart,” she said.

Salt said the audience could interpret “True West” in a number of different ways.

“I interpret the brothers as two sides of the creative process that are forever keeping each other in balance,” she said. “In some ways the mother is off in her own little world and in another way she is a driving force ... She doesn’t really understand art but she acknowledges her need to have it,” said Salt, who also is the marketing director at the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre.

Mike McShane said “True West” is becoming the most frequently produced show at the Acrosstown Repertory Theatre. The play has been produced twice before at the theater.

“The writing is excellent. The acting is dynamite, and it’s one of the more gritty shows of this season at the Acrosstown ... People who don’t usually come to the theater might really be into it because it isn’t high brow,” said Mike McShane. “Sam Shepard writes in a way where his middle class is struggling either to barely get by or see who can get ahead. The content is accessible to a wide range of audiences.”

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