By JESSICA NEU
Riverfront Theater Company has opened its 2023 season with Sam Shepard’s American classic about the combustible reunion of two estranged brothers, the dark comedy True West.
Playing March 16-18, 23-25, the four-person play tells the story of brothers Austin (Evan Wormald) and Lee (Zach Reed), who reunite at the home of their mother (Kathy Ciesielski) while she ventures on vacation to Alaska. An Ivy League graduate, Austin is a writer working on his latest project, which he is preparing to pitch to film producer Saul (Jim Froelich). Lee is a despondent petty thief, who we are left to assume is battling alcoholism and being unhoused.
The tension and chaos are palpable from the moment the brothers begin to cohabitate.
Having not seen each other recently, due to Austin living a picturesque, married, suburban life and Lee living in the desert, the brothers’ volatile relationship is fraught with resentment but also a yearning for love and connection. Their struggles are rooted in displaced anger over a seeming lifetime of dysfunction with an alcoholic father — referred to only as “the old man” — and a despondent mother who kept not even a “tea leaf” in the kitchen sink. The latter, we presume, was her modus operandi of control over the chaos caused by her husband.
Austin is enjoying a bit of elation as Saul has offered him a movie deal based on his script. But the celebration quickly percolates into unabashed disdain as Lee cons his way into having Saul accept his pitch for a movie, which forces the brothers to work together to develop Lee’s ideas instead of Austin’s.
Reed and Wormald carry this show with waves of emotions ranging from calm to reactive to impulsive and back again, with superb subtleties and a constant underlying tone of desperation.
As the brothers work on the script, glimpses into their pasts are revealed. Yet with each detail comes another unanswered question. This vagueness creates a sense of mystery and intrigue, leaving audience members to provide their own answers or interpretations to the what and why of certain elements throughout the show. What did Lee and Austin’s childhood look like? Why does Austin periodically spend several nights in a motel? Why did their mother go to Alaska? What did Lee actually do while in the desert? Or was he even there to begin with?
These questions do not leave plot holes but rather add depth to each character’s unresolved anger and ongoing displacement of their emotional baggage.
Both Lee’s and Austin’s inability to face their own realities leads to them constantly questioning what is real. Their questioning and yearning culminates in an emotional climax as they attempt to build on Lee’s idea for a true, authentic Western movie.
Reed and Wormald are equals in their ability to portray two men who hate their own lives but desperately want to be in control of something, real or not. Ciesielski’s and Froelich’s appearances are both eloquent in their brevity. Ciesielski’s despondent reaction in the final scene provides a haunting glimpse into family dysfunction rooted in decades of despair.
Froelich, Reed, and Wormald provide sardonic, dark humor, which rendered big laughs on opening night — almost as a means to break up the unnerving tension that was as constant as the crickets chirping in the background.
A remarkable start to Riverfront’s season, True West takes place in California but represents familial dysfunction, displaced anger, jealousy, and the yearning to simply be understood that can occur in any family in America. As audiences watch Reed and Wormald yell, fight, shake, drink, intimidate, and laugh with pristine execution and haunting nuance, we are left with both sorrow for who they are with equal parts hope and doubt for who they will become.