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TRUE WEST at Road Less Traveled updates all the “western” themes

THE BASICS:  TRUE WEST, a play (1983 Pulitzer Prize in Drama Finalist) by Sam Shepard, directed by Scott Behrend, starring David Mitchell, Matt Witten, Robert Rutland, Tina Rausa runs through November 20, Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2. Students with ID pay $5 on Thursdays. Road Less Traveled Theater, 500 Pearl St. (629-3069). Coffee, water, soda, beer and wine served in the lobby. Run time over two hours with one intermission.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  With a screen play to finish that will make or break his career, Austin (Matt Witten – photo left) has borrowed his vacationing mother’s (Christina Rausa) Southern California suburban house, about 40 miles east of L.A., for some peace and quiet away from his wife and kids. Then, his older brother, Lee (David Mitchell – photo right), an alcoholic, petty burglar, comes home intent on easy pickings from his childhood neighborhood. As the “outlaw” Lee keeps goading his brother, the “domesticated” Austin tries not to react, hoping Lee will just go away. But, he doesn’t. In fact, when Saul Kimmer (Robert Rutland), the producer, shows up to see how Austin’s romantic screen play is coming along, Lee pitches him on a western, which, to everyone’s surprise, Saul likes. Now the gloves are off and the rest of the play takes sibling rivalry to extremes.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: It was wonderful to see David Mitchell, last seen by me as the seething, embittered suburban dad in CLYBOURNE PARK let that persona out of the box. The moment Mitchell appears on stage he is menacing (which he told me actually took a lot of rehearsals to develop). And his character, like many alcoholics, seems to sort of make sense as he raves about life. At any rate, his younger brother, played by Matt Witten, tries to reason with him. Now, Witten can play big, powerful guys that you don’t want to mess with, but here, as Austin, he is the accommodating “civilizing” one. He tries to reason with his train wreck brother, hoping that Lee will just leave.

When you go, try to arrive a little earlier than usual so that you can read the very entertaining and informative insert (uncredited as far as I can tell) all about the American west and the genre we call “The Western.” Unfold the insert and you can read “How the Western Was Done: Our Themes” which include (and think of Austin vs. Lee as you read this): “East vs. West; Culture vs. Nature; Civilization vs. Savagery/Lawlessness; Community vs. Individual…..”

There’s something about American violence that to me is very touching.

Sam Shepard, the playwright, is quoted: “There’s something about American violence that to me is very touching. In full force, it’s very ugly, but there’s also something moving about it, because it has to do with humiliation. There’s some hidden, deeply rooted thing in the Anglo male American that has to do with inferiority, that has to do with not being a man, and always, continually, having to act out some idea of manhood that invariably is violent.”

Why is the character of Lee so appealing to audiences? Because, as uncouth, unrefined, smelly, disheveled, and uneducated as he is, Lee is the hero of the story. He’s not the idealized hero of 1940’s westerns (John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper) but he is the protagonist, the mover of the action, and he is cast, as we read in the insert section titled “Our Hero”, as one who “mediates between civilization and the lawless frontier” (Lee has just come from living in the desert to rob the suburban houses); is a “marginalized figure outside of the community” (check); is “motivated by revenge and/or sense of justice” and “adheres to a code.” 

Lee’s sense of justice is that the world owes him and that it’s okay to be a petty burglar. And the character Lee, like the living playwright Sam Shepard, is also seeking revenge for a childhood ruined by an alcoholic father. Everyone loves Sam Shepard, and since Lee is modeled after some concept of himself, we have to, on some level, then love Lee. (I am reminded of a favorite tee shirt which reads: “Accept me for what I am – completely unacceptable.”)

Kudos to set designer Dyan Burlingame and Costume Designer and Props Master Maura Simmonds-Price for the spot on 1980s kitschy kitchen where all the action takes place.

And kudos to set designer Dyan Burlingame and Costume Designer and Props Master Maura Simmonds-Price for the spot on 1980s kitschy kitchen where all the action takes place. The wall telephone, the cabinets, the toasters (yes, plural, you’ll just have to go to see why), the manual typewriter, taking notes on yellow pads, this is not our world of cellphones and iPads. And Lee’s ratty undershirt? The actor David Mitchell said that they keep it on its own special hanger because nobody wants to go near it. Awesome.

The next offering at Road Less Traveled Productions is John Hurley’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ THE CHIMES: A GOBLIN STORY (written the year after A CHRISTMAS CAROL) described as “a fast-paced, warm-hearted fable of fun and fright.” There is also a Wednesday night Jazz Series ($10 cash only cover, cash bar serving beer and wine) with performances beginning at 7:00 p.m. on November 9 and 16 and December 7 and 14.

And, finally, a bit of slice-of-life irony: While we are all encouraged to celebrate Buffalo’s “revitalization” that is most easily seen in recent urban renewal projects, just as with “gentrification,” poorer residents (including arts organizations) often take a hit. Because the area behind 500 Pearl is being revitalized, on opening night for RLTP’s last play, DINNER WITH FRIENDS, patrons were advised in an email to dispense with opening night gala clothing and to wear shorts and tees because the AC unit was down. And my wife joked: “You wait. The next time we come it’ll be freezing.” Ha ha! Speak of the devil and he’ll appear. For opening night of RLTP’s TRUE WEST, patrons were advised in an email to wear parkas, hats, and mittens because the heat was off that particularly cold night (again to accommodate the construction crews). When you come, though, that will all be fixed.


*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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