Lisa Gauthier

True West

Theatre on the Square

Directed by Michael Shelton

Through March 18

Nick Carpenter (left) and Doug Johnson in 'True West'

Sam Shepard is a playwright you either love, or you sit there the whole play, slack-jawed, going, "Huh?" Shepard, a product of the '60s, plays with conventions - characters, language and concepts - to create new messages as well as new experiences. You have to decide yourself if you are into that sort of thing.

Which brings us to True West, being presented at Theatre on the Square as a project of the Actors Equity Association (the actors' union) in collaboration with Rough Magic Productions. The program is packed with well-known local actors and, Shepard aside, the cast is fantastic.

True West is, among other things, about two brothers who don't like each other. Nick Carpenter as Austin is the brother who trod the good path towards family and work. He is about to break through as a screenwriter, until his brother, Lee, shows up at their mom's house, where Austin is working on his latest project while Mom is in Alaska. He is sweet, accommodating. He waters the plants. Carpenter looks so innocent and is so compliant, you fear for him in the face of his brother.

Doug Johnson as Lee is Austin's antithesis. Lee is a drifter, thief, wanna-be cowboy strutting around in snakeskin boots. Johnson doesn't just chew scenery here - he demolishes it, stomps on it, throws it and spews beer over it. His role is a workout. Lee is frightening, intimidating. Johnson takes it all on and asks for more.

When movie agent Saul Kimmer agrees to take on Lee's pathetic screenplay because of a lost bet, all hell breaks loose. Michael T. Downey as Saul is sly tension relief. His facial expressions are always fun to watch, with his wide eyes and exaggerated frowns and grins, and here, comboed with his pimp-daddy costuming (check out the chest hair!), he is even more hilarious.

Briefly, we get to see Gayle Steigerwald as Mom, but she is there just long enough to show us that, she, too, fears Lee, and beats a hasty retreat.

Director Michael Shelton seems to have intuited his cast's strengths and sprinted with them. The show is quick and sharp. Lighting (R. Brian Knoffke) and sound (Brian G. Hartz) are exceptional, and help take the audience out of the cramped second stage at TOTS.

The show is being offered free, but donations are (more than) welcome to help cover the costs of creating the production. True West will continue through March 18 at TOTS, 627 Massachusetts Ave., Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. To make reservations, call 317-685-TOTS.


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