|Written by||Sam Shepard|
|Date premiered||July 10, 1980|
|Place premiered||Magic Theatre, San Francisco, California|
Some critics consider it the third of a Family Trilogy which includes Curse of the Starving Class (1976) and Buried Child (1979). Others consider it part of a quintet which includes Fool for Love (1983) and A Lie of the Mind (1985).
- Austin – A Hollywood screenwriter. He is well educated and has a wife and children.
- Lee – A drifter and a thief, he is Austin's older brother.
- Mom – Austin and Lee's mother.
- Saul Kimmer – A Hollywood producer.
True West is about the sibling rivalry between two estranged brothers who have reconnected. The play begins with brothers Austin and Lee sitting in their mother's house. This is the first time they've seen one another in five years. The two are not on good terms, but Austin attempts to appease his older brother, who is more dominant. We learn that their mother is on vacation in Alaska and that Austin is house sitting. Austin is trying to work on his screenplay but Lee continually distracts him with nonsense questions. The two brothers seem on edge with one another. When Austin suggests that Lee leave, Lee threatens to steal things from the neighborhood. Austin calms him down and the night ends with the two of them on neutral.
Lee talks about the security level of their mother's house, and how Lee went into the desert to find their dad. Austin then tells Lee to leave the house because a film producer, Saul, is coming by to look at Austin's screenplay (described as a “period piece”). Lee agrees to leave in exchange for Austin's car keys. Austin is reluctant at first but eventually relents and Lee promises that he will have it back by six. Lee departs.
Saul and Austin are discussing their agreement when Lee enters with a stolen television set. Saul and Lee discuss golf and make plans to play the next day, excluding Austin because he doesn't play, despite his desire that Lee have nothing to do with Saul. Lee proposes a script idea to Saul and Saul reacts positively.
Lee describes his story out loud. Austin writes it down, but stops, saying it doesn't resemble real life. The two brothers quarrel and Austin asks Lee for his car keys back. Lee assumes Austin is trying to make him leave, and Lee says he can't be kicked out. Austin says he wouldn't kick him out because he's his brother. Lee counters that being brothers means nothing because in-family murders are most common. Austin assures him they won't be driven to murder over a movie script. The two admit to being envious of each other's lives, Lee returns the car keys and the scene closes with Austin typing Lee's story.
Lee returns from his golf game with Saul. He tells Austin that Saul has promised him an advance for his story idea outline that Austin wrote. They celebrate until Lee informs Austin that he expects Austin to write the screenplay. Austin questions this knowing he has his own work, but Lee continues to inform him that Saul has chosen to drop Austin's screenplay. Austin warns Lee that he needs to be careful with messing about with this line of work and that he has a lot at stake on his own project. The scene ends with Austin threatening to leave and go to the desert as Lee tries to calm him down.
Austin confronts Saul about his decision to buy Lee's screenplay. He argues that Saul only offered to buy the screenplay because he lost a bet. Saul wants Austin to write both his and Lee's story but Austin refuses. Austin thinks that Lee's story is without merit and not relevant to the time period. Due to Austin's rejection of the job, Saul decides to drop Austin's story and to find a different writer for Lee's story. The scene ends with Saul making plans for lunch with Lee.
Austin is drunk and annoying Lee, who is now the one trying to concentrate on a screenplay. Austin taunts his brother with advice and says that this is the first time he has enjoyed spending time with Lee since he arrived. He insists that Lee is not a real screenwriter, and when Lee informs him that he has an advance coming on his script, Austin claims he could burgle houses just as well as Lee can. Lee bets that he couldn't even steal a toaster, but they can't agree on the stakes. Instead Lee asks in earnest for Austin's help with the technical parts of the writing, offering to pay him money and then disappear like their father did and leave Austin alone. Austin argues about how well their father ended up, and the scene closes as they drink together.
Austin is polishing toasters that he stole while Lee is smashing a typewriter early in the morning. The two continue to do this while they are carrying on a conversation. Austin is proud of what he has done. Lee wants to see a woman, but Austin refuses because he is married. Lee throws a fit while on the phone with the operator because he cannot find a pen to write down what the operator is saying. Austin begs Lee to go to the desert with him because he thinks there is nothing for him where he is. The brothers make a deal that Austin will write the play for Lee if Lee takes him to the desert.
In the final scene, the house is ransacked and Lee and Austin are working vigorously on their script. Their mother returns and Lee is first to notice her. She is confused by her sons' appearances and the state of her house. Austin tells her that he and Lee are going to take off into the desert, but Lee says they might have to postpone the trip because he doesn't think Austin is cut out for the desert life-style. Austin responds by attempting to strangle Lee and their mother storms out of the house in trepidation. Austin finally lets go of Lee, and is worried for a second that he's killed his brother. As Austin moves for the door, Lee rises. The two brothers face one another as the lights fade.
True West was first performed at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, where Shepard was the resident playwright. It had its world premiere there on July 10, 1980. It was originally directed by Robert Woodruff and starred Peter Coyote as Austin, Jim Haynie as Lee, Tom Dahlgren as Saul Kimmer, and Carol McElheney as Mom. The production moved from the Magic Theatre to the Marines Memorial Theatre in San Francisco in 1981. Ebbe Roe Smith replaced Peter Coyote as Austin.
This production premiered Off-Broadway at Joseph Papp's The Public Theater, opening on December 23, 1980 and closing on January 11, 1981. The play starred Tommy Lee Jones and Peter Boyle and was directed by Robert Woodruff.
It was produced by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 1982, with then fairly unknown actors Gary Sinise (who also directed the production) and John Malkovich playing the leads. With Shepard's approval, this production transferred to Off-Broadway, where it opened at Cherry Lane Theatre in October 1982. It closed on August 4, 1984 after 762 performances, and, later in the run, the leads were taken over by Bruce Lyons, James Belushi, Gary Cole, Tim Matheson, Erik Estrada, Dennis Quaid and Randy Quaid. A television movie of the stage play, featuring Sinise and Malkovich, aired on the PBS series "American Playhouse" in January 1984.
Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly played the leads on Broadway, where they switched parts every so often during the run. The play opened at the Circle in the Square Theatre on February 17, 2000 and closed on July 29, 2000 after 154 performances and 21 previews. The director Matthew Warchus requested that the Tony Administration Committee consider Hoffman and Reilly as a single unit for Tony nominations, but the Committee decided that they would be considered separately. Both Hoffman and Reilly each received a nomination. This revival was also nominated for Best Play and Best Director (Matthew Warchus).James Sayess is known for being the first actor to use scissors to thin out his hair and professionally have random hairs dyed gray in order to accurately portray an older and age-appropriate Lee in The York Shakespeare Company off-Broadway production at Theatre 54 in New York City.
Bruce Willis and Chad Smith starred in a filmed version of the play, which was aired on Showtime in August 2002. The play was filmed in front of a live audience and directed by Gary Halvorson with Andrew Alburger and Danielle Kennedy in supporting roles.
The play was revived on Broadway at the American Airlines Theatre by the Roundabout Theatre Company, entering previews on December 27, 2018 and officially opening on January 24, 2019. It is directed by James Macdonald and stars Ethan Hawke as Lee and Paul Dano as Austin.
International and regional productions
The play was produced in London by the Royal National Theatre at the Cottesloe Theatre, opening on December 3, 1981. Directed by John Schlesinger, the cast starred Bob Hoskins as Lee and Antony Sher as Austin, with Patricia Hayes as Mom.
The Donmar Warehouse presented the play in 1994, starring Mark Rylance and Michael Rudko, directed by Matthew Warchus. Sheridan Morley wrote: "... this is really a two-man play and as Rylance and Rudko prowl around each other, giving two of the best-contrasted and indeed best performances in town, 'True West' seems somehow a much stronger, funnier and more savage play than I recall from its first National outing over here in the early 1980s." The production began at the Quarry Theatre in Leeds. Matt Wolf called the Donmar Warehouse production a "blazing revival", "one of the best-attended of [Sam] Mendes' early years." The male leads swapped roles every 3 or 4 performances.
Wilson Milam directed a production at the Bristol Old Vic in November 2003, with Phil Daniels as Lee and Andrew Tiernan as Austin. The British Theatre Guide reviewer noted: "The design, by Dick Bird, who was responsible for the much-admired Great Expectations at the Old Vic earlier this year, is excellent. White framed windows opening on to a patio area with plants, furniture and skies beyond." The production replaced the smashing of a typewriter with a modern working laptop, and used 20 working toasters. The production caused the Bristol Old Vic to remove the first 3 rows of seats for fear that the audience would be harmed and installed a Perspex shield for safety reasons. It did however receive much critical acclaim from the British National Press and was cited as Pick of the Week in The Guardian newspaper (October 27, November 2, 2003).
Soulpepper, Toronto's largest theatre company, presented Patricia Hamilton, Stuart Hughes and Mike Ross in a production directed by Nancy Palk at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, running in April – May 2013.
Pittsburgh Public Theater's production was directed by Pamela Berlin, with Ken Barnett (Austin) and David Mogentale (Lee), running from November 7 through December 8, 2013, at the O'Reilly Theater.
Citizen's Theatre, Glasgow presented True West in October 29 – November 16, 2013, directed by Philip Breen, starring Alex Ferns and Eugene O'Hare. This production ran at the Tricycle Theatre, London in September 2014.
The Plank Theatre Company produced the play at the Complex Theatre in Hollywood, California. (Oct. 2017) The actors, Jacob Grodnik and Drake Shannon alternated the roles of "Austin" and "Lee" each performance. "Saul" was performed by Mishone Feigin, and the "Mom" was played by Melissa Jobe.
The Vaudeville Theatre in London presented the first West End production of the play which ran from 23 November 2018 to 23 February 2019. Directed by Matthew Dunster, the production starred Kit Harington as Austin and Johnny Flynn as Lee.
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