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At the Abreact: Hot summer in the city

By |2010-08-09T09:00:00-04:00August 9th, 2010|Entertainment|

By John Quinn

It’s the Labor Day holiday and after the torturous dry spell, most humans are yearning for one last fling of sand, surf and sun. Is it crazy for a theater company to open a show in Detroit this weekend? Oh HELL, yeah! But when that play is Sam Shepard’s 1980 tragicomedy, “True West,” and the company is The Abreact, crazy is good.
“True West” is a crazy play, one of many in which Shepard explores the legacy of dysfunctional families. It features unique character studies of the protagonists estranged brothers Lee and Austin. It also features emotions as raw as a sun burn and some truly amazing mayhem in the intimate confines of The Abreact Performance Space. One patron was overheard comparing the experience to seeing a play in your living room, but trust me – you don’t want these characters anywhere near your house!
Austin, played by Chris Korte, seems to have it all – he’s risen above his upbringing. An ambitious screen writer, he has the wife, the kids and the house in the suburbs that are the anchors of middle class respectability. He is at present working on a script while house sitting for his vacationing mother. His work is interrupted by the first appearance in years of his older brother Lee (Eric Maher), a drifter and petty thief. In the hands of a less thoughtful playwright, this could be yet another take on Cain and Abel, but Shepard’s characters are both driven by the same envy and resentment. Each brother is only half of a complete person.
Rather than let Austin conduct business as usual, hustler Lee pulls the rug out from under him by convincing movie producer Saul Kimmer (Joel Mitchell) to drop his brother’s project in favor of his own “true” tale of the west. Their roles begin to reverse as free-wheeler Lee tries to knuckle down to writing and Austin becomes an increasingly drunken pest.
Thematically, “True West” is an exploration of its title. Shepard uses his characters as representatives of seemingly mutually exclusive views. Is the “Old West” reliance on rugged individualism (bordering on lawless irresponsibility) true? Or is the “New West” obsession with status and conformity true? Had “True West” been a musical, Shepard might have written, ” You can’t have one without the other.”
The thrust stage at The Abreact is about the size of the fifth pocket on a pair of Levis and the audience sits right on top of the action. So up close and personal we can practically smell the tension between Lee and Austin. Put these characters in the hands of Korte and Maher, and the menace is both overwhelming and a little frightening. Respectable people will want to turn away from such intimate family matters – while the rest of us can’t get enough.
This is, in essence, a two character drama for four actors. The movie producer and Mom, who unexpectedly returns just before the end of the play, are little more that plot devices. So just praise to Joel Mitchell and Linda Rabin Hammell whose characterizations never fall to stereotype. Hammell’s brief turn as the introverted, slightly mad mother speaks volumes about how dysfunction is a generational curse.
Fair warning is in order. The brothers’ descent into drunkenness is a descent in madness. Mom’s neat suburban kitchen becomes a disaster scene composed of healthy portions of spilled beer and bourbon, smashed crockery and fragments of typewriter, empty cans and stolen toasters. The increasing disorder that parallels Lee and Austin’s downward spiral is a finger-in-the-eye visual. It only adds to the already taut situation – one feels that one false step on that wreck of a stage might leave a front row patron with a lapful of Eric Maher.
That’s not going happen. Director Charles Reynolds has the insanity firmly in hand and has given us a gutsy, unvarnished production. As the opener of Abreact’s 10th season, “True West” is a scorching coda for a hot, hot summer.

‘True West’
The Abreact Performance Space, 1301 W. Lafayette Blvd., #113, Detroit. Friday-Saturday through Sept. 25, plus Sunday, Sept. 19. Free; by donation. 313-378-5404.

About the Author:

BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.