May 11-22, except May 13
Wed.-Sun., 8 p.m. • $14-17
Thalian Hall Studio Theatre
310 Chestnut St.
Sam Shepard’s “True West” is a play that speaks to young men—and one that male actors hold in reverence, with aspirations to perform in one day. Shepard is a “macho” writer in every sense of the word; thus, “True West” is a macho show.
Like many of Shepard’s plays, its premiere was at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco. However, the quintessential production remains Steppenwolf Theatre’s with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise leading the helm. Eventually, the show was filmed and aired on PBS. In Wilmington, Cape Fear Theatre Arts, a brand new manifestation of the production team from City Stage, is presenting the show in the Studio Theatre of Thalian Hall.
On the surface “True West” is a story about two brothers locked in a primal battle on the symbolic court of their mother’s house, but that is just the trappings in which the struggle between the playwright’s id and ego comes to life. The younger brother, Austin (Shane Callahan), is house-sitting for their mother while she is in Alaska. Lee (Cullen Moss), the older brother, has shown up again after a sojourn in the desert and prison. Austin is on the brink of sealing the deal on a big film project he has been working on for months, and came down to LA for a quiet place to work and meet with the producer, Saul Kimmer (Nick Basta). He is not overjoyed when Lee appears, announcing his plans to rob their mother’s neighbors. From there, things begin to spiral out of control, and go from bad to worse when Kimmer is introduced to Lee.
Directed by Gil Johnson, this is not an ensemble production. There are two minor roles: that of the agent and the mother. Both were very competently made corporeal by Nick Basta and Ann Donnell. The rest of the show consists of Lee and Austin on stage together—it is in effect a two-person cast.
Callahan’s journey during the course of the script is frightening. He is not a shrinking violet. Austin has a healthy respect for the dangerous edge of his brother, whom he loves very deeply. He does not just react to Lee and his physical impact on their environment. It would be a very easy choice for him to scurry away from his brother’s bullying tendencies, but Callahan stands up to him. Callahan’s Austin stakes out territory and claims it as his own. Having said that, like all younger brothers, he still wants to be cool in his big brother’s eyes. His ability to calm Lee down for quiet moments of introspection is the key to their relationship.
Like his character, Cullen Moss impacts his environment with every movement, leaving neither surface nor dimension untouched. In Moss’ careful hands, Lee is teetering on the brink of insanity: flirting with it, coming back, failing and falling again. He has a very scary, manipulative and menacing side, but also compassion, generosity and genuine vulnerability. To take on a character that is known by theatre people as so completely John Malkovich is an overwhelming prospect for any actor. Malkovich in the role was a terrifying bully to everyone. Moss succeeds in making Lee exasperated at times, yet still able to portray genuine concern for his younger sibling.
When we left the theatre, my escort turned and said, “It’s a shame we can’t go back in time and have Cullen play that role at Steppenwolf—then he’d be as famous as Malkovich.”
“You’re saying you thought he was better than John Malkovich in the role?” I asked.
“Yes, but can I say that in print? Can I say I think Cullen Moss did a better job with a role John Malkovich made famous?”
“He did, didn’t he?”
The answer is yes.
Anyone feeling that statement is hyperbolic must go see “True West.” In act two, their mother comes home unexpectedly from her trip to Alaska. She finds her house destroyed and her adult children shirtless, writing a movie script on her patio of dead flowers surrounded by toasters. Moss is drinking and bathing with a can of PBR when he notices her presence. The ability at that moment to embody a multitude of conflicting emotions and to communicate them so clearly to the audience and to Callahan without speaking is proof of the above statement.
Between them, Moss and Callahan hit every nuance and note spoken and unspoken. It is breathtaking to see acting of this caliber live and in person. It is certainly an auspicious start for the Cape Fear Theatre Arts season.