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01.23.08

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REUNION: Older brother Lee (Ray Renati) picks on his sibling Austin (John Romano) in 'True West.'

Brother Act

Lee and Austin duke it out in Sam Shepard's 'True West' at Pear Avenue

By Marianne Messina


GOING OUT between two football playoffs over the weekend to watch the brothers Lee and Austin trash their mother's house in Sam Shepard's True West, now playing at Pear Avenue, turned out to be truly cathartic. Mom (Jackie O'Keefe) has left Austin (John Romano) plant-sitting in her suburban SoCal home and gone to Alaska. But long-absent, desert-rat brother Lee (Ray Renati) shows up uttering Shepard's half-thoughts, pauses and reiterations. Renati, who also directed this Pear Avenue Theatre production, floats those pauses on a dazed look. You can almost see the desert in his eyes, and he's reeling from it. Lee, who presents himself as "a free agent," looks more like a wild card. Beer-drip stains his dirty white T-shirt; pointy cowboy boots curve from under well-worn jeans (Mae Matos, costume design).

Austin first appears seated behind his typewriter, neat and studious in his polo shirt and horn-rimmed glasses. This production makes him an obvious candidate for victimhood, adding an occasional whine to his voice and staging an act of physical aggression from Lee early on. When Austin offers Lee money, Lee seizes him, forcing him to the ground. It's a wonder that only a few lines later Austin wants "to spend time" with Lee and invites him to his NorCal home—among his wife and kids. Such is the catwalk of contradiction in Shepard's dialogue. And the tables are always turning.

To counter the surreal parts of the play, set designer Ron Gasparinetti exercises his flair for "normal" homey kitchens—add a large picture window, through which we can watch Lee's ominous entrances. It is to both Shepard's and director Renati's credit that even when Kevin High joins the stage as "movie" producer Saul Kimmer ("Leave 'films' to the French," as Kimmer says) he does little to show who has the better grip on reality or stabilize our view of the power dynamic. High's Kimmer seems just plain contradictory, rolling his eyes at Lee one minute and agreeing to play golf with him the next. After Kimmer precipitates a strange turn of events, Lee becomes desperate to write a script, and a drunken Austin appears to have stolen Lee's fearless abandon. They seem to argue around a fulcrum of weaknesses of the anti-cowboy variety: weakness is having a lot to lose or being close to seizing the brass ring (Lee's "blondes" in a suburban "paradise").

Set in one of California's artificially reclaimed desert towns the play can examine the meaning of "real" while also exploring the myth of the solitary cowboy. As the drunken brothers' interactions become more hyperbolic and humorous, the play stabilizes into a funnier, less tense cadence; the brothers unify into a humorous front—and, for example, abandon mom's plants to a desert fate of desiccation. A line from Lee's made-up story, two truckers chasing each other through the Texas panhandle, says, "The one chasing doesn't know where he's being taken, and the one that's being chased doesn't know where he's going." This production lets the audience get lost for a time in those uncertain tensions, a state much like Lee's mythical Wild West, but the equalizing payoff comes in squashed beer cans and typewriters smashed with golf clubs.


TRUE WEST, a Pear Avenue Theatre production, plays Thursday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Feb. 3 at the Pear, 1220 Pear Ave., Unit K, Mountain View. Tickets are $15–$30. (650.254.1148)


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