By Tiffany Raymond, ‘Burgh Vivant
In a city where people are oddly resistant to crossing bridges, it’s easy to wonder if a drive to Braddock for theater is worth your time. Barebones Productions unequivocally affirms the answer is a resounding “Yes!” with their newest production, Sam Shepard’s “True West.”
Their Black Box Theater is an intimate space that compactly heightens the familial tensions of Shepard’s drama, making it feel almost claustrophobic.
Shepard’s play focuses on two estranged brothers. Austin (Gabriel King) is a polished, successful Ivy League educated screenwriter. Lee (Patrick Jordan) is an alcoholic ne’er-do-well with a trendline of breaking and entering. They meet for the first time in five years at their mother’s house (Heidi Mueller Smith) in southern California where Austin is housesitting and working on a screenplay.
Patrick Jordan is both director and leading man as Lee. However, his dual roles don’t compromise the play’s quality. From the opening scene, the tension between the brothers is palpable. Lee crushes a Miller Lite can and pops another one as he rambles. King’s tight facial expressions, which play so well in the compact space, revealing his thin tolerance at the unwelcome distraction as he tries to write. Sound designer Dave Bjornson heightens sounds like the can-crushing, making it as intrusive as a wrecking ball. Costume designer Ali Roush visually reinforces the brothers as polar opposites. In the opening scene, Lee is clad in a faded trench coat with missing buttons and frayed cuffs, a foil to Austin’s fitted baby blue polo shirt and khakis.
The brothers may be opposites, but they romanticize each other lives. This is only possible because they don’t really know each other. To Austin, Lee represents a sort of unchecked freedom Austin has never allowed himself. As a chronic hustler, Lee envies the perceived ease of Austin’s college-educated life that pays him to imagine. At one point, Lee talks about a house he’s casing with “blonde people coming in and out of rooms,” and Jordan has an almost wistful expression. It’s his perception of Lee’s life, even if it’s inaccurate.
While the bulk of the play has the two brothers steeping in the maternal kitchen together, Austin’s producer, Saul (Randy Kovitz), also makes an appearance. Kovitz convincingly evokes the walking stereotype of an aging Hollywood producer, complete with faux orange tan and gold chain. With his casually smug smoothness, it’s easy to imagine a past rife with #metoo moments.
If there’s a weak link, it’s Heidi Mueller Smith as the mom, but luckily, she has the smallest role. In an otherwise strong cast, she comes across as uncertain, and Jordan could have used stronger direction to help her character find a path.
Kovitz isn’t just the smarmy Saul. Like Jordan, he also has a production role; Kovitz serves as the play’s fight director. As tensions build, the quick-tempered Lee takes a swing at Austin with one of Saul’s golf clubs. It’s a moment that takes you aback as an audience member because Kovitz makes it genuine and spontaneous. It’s both shocking and realistic, conjuring a mental reel of domestic violence stats. It’s not the play’s only hands-on fight scene, and Jordan bravely explores the precipices of familial violence without ever sanctioning it.
Set designer Tony Ferrieri does a masterful job with the small stage space. Ferrieri’s “mom” kitchen is an AARP magazine’s homage to a youthful elderly aesthetic complete with mauve paint, a braided rug, and wall-mounted plates and baskets. Ferrieri wisely includes a large bank of windows along the back of the set that opens up the small space. They’re curtained with sheers that permit a delicate range of subtle lighting. Lighting designer Andrew Ostrowski creates beautifully diffused light to convey the play’s wide-ranging early bird to night owl hours.
Barebones Productions’ presentation of “True West” plays through September 29th at the Barebones Black Box Theater, 1211 Braddock Ave, Braddock, PA 15104. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.