David Sapiro (left) and Jason Will are troubled brothers in "True West."
David Sapiro (left) and Jason Will are troubled brothers in "True West." (Photo: Aaron Kopec)

Alchemist's "True West" is a tortured tale of brotherly love and hate

True love is sometimes hard to recognize, sometimes covered by combat, sometimes hidden by ego and sometimes mistaken for something else entirely.

But true love is what’s at the heart of a blistering production of Sam Shepard’s "True West," running at Alchemist Theatre. It’s hard to recognize the true love between brothers Lee and Austin, but it’s there, complete with all the warts of any troubled relationship.

And make no mistake about it. The relationship between this brothers is truly a troubled one, but under the deft and taut direction of Erin Nicole Eggers, the trouble never actually overwhelms the love.

Austin is a budding screenwriter, staying at his mother’s house while she is in Alaska. Lee turns up, not having seen Austin for five years. He has been living in the desert and has come to civilization to ply his trade as a petty thief.

The two could not be more different. Austin is studious; Lee has never finished a book. Austin has a reserve about him; Lee has no boundaries. Austin is quiet; Lee is loud. Austin is honorable, while Lee has only a nodding acquaintance with the truth.

There is nothing these brothers won’t fight over, from Lee’s cigarette ashes in the sink to Austin’s utter disgust at the cliched story Lee tells, hoping to turn it into his screenplay, just to show his brother he can do it, too.

Much to everyone’s surprise, Lee hits a home run with his story, and the ensuing contretemps is full of sorrow and humor as the brothers struggle to find a place where they might meet in peace.

The touchstone of this relationship is the never-seen father, a ne’er do well who has wasted away an untold sum of cash given him by Austin. Lee, on the other hand never even visits the old man. Lee is jealous of Austin's care for dear old dad, but not jealous enough to actually do anything about it. Like most things in life, Lee just talks about it.

Eggers shows incredible discipline with the two lead actors, David Sapiro, who plays Lee, and Jason Will, who plays Austin.

With two such divergent personalities, it would be easy to let them take their characters to the outer edge and then climb outside of the limits, becoming almost caricatures. But Eggers smartly keeps these two guys in check. She has hold of the reins and isn’t afraid to tug on them to keep the boys from falling off a cliff.

Her task is made easier by the wonderful performances from Sapiro and Will.

Lee is the embodiment of nothing even a mother could love. Sapiro gives Lee the kind of aspirant lout who talks a bigger game than he walks. There is a hard edge to Lee, and Sapiro hones in on that edge and nails it with a whetstone.

Lee’s life, both the one he has and the one he wants, are full of stories. And those stories trip off his tongue with nary a pause.

He tries so hard to fit in, but then he demands that Austin lend him his car so he can case houses in his mother’s neighborhood, looking for stuff to steal. Sapiro makes is strikingly clear why Austin is both afraid and disappointed in him.

Will is the one who undergoes the most dramatic transformation in this production. He is all wide-eyed wonder and mistrust over the appearance of his brother, firmly defensive of his writing craft. Eventually, he crashes under the continued onslaught from Lee, both direct and indirect. He turns into something that even he doesn’t recognize and becomes a fearful monster when he finally lets all his hate creep out.

The entire play takes place in the kitchen of the mother, and Aaron Kopec’s set fully captures the meager ties of the brotherly relationship. One of the hardest things to design is a set that gets virtually destroyed during the performance, but Kopec has done it perfectly.

Austin and Lee are both little kids chasing something in their lives. They each have a True West where they can go and be cowboys. It is left to Austin, though, to put the final dagger in the soul of their dreams.

"There’s no such thing as the West anymore," he says. All the more to be sorrowful.

"True West" runs through Jan. 31 and information on tickets and showtimes is available here.

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