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In 1982, True West put Steppenwolf Theatre Company on the map. With John Malkovich and Jeff Perry in the main roles, under Gary Sinise’s guiding hand, the young theater’s scrappy, say-it-to-your-face style proved a perfect match for Sam Shepard’s wild tale of brotherly enmity. When the production transferred to New York (and Sinise took over for Perry), it was a watershed moment for the Chicago theater scene. Now, for the first time since that legendary production, Steppenwolf is taking another run at the material, with Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood as the dueling brothers Austin and Lee, respectively. Steppenwolf is a different company now than it was then, and this production reflects that. For one thing, Hill and Smallwood are both African-American, assuming roles that have historically been played by white men. But the show also takes a new view of Shepard’s inquiries into brotherhood, masculinity and the ever-elusive notion of the American West. What once seemed a forum for hyper-manly aggression is, in director Randall Arney’s hands, a skeptical deconstruction of it.
Set designer Todd Rosenthal frames the brothers’ small bungalow with a cinematic desert backdrop, and from the play’s opening moments—as Austin, a nebbishy screenwriter, attempts to maneuver around the boorish, beer-chugging Lee—it’s clear that Shepard is playing with archetypes. As Lee intrudes on Austin’s Tinseltown bubble, first swiping the keys to his car and then driving off with his career, the lines between the two men begin to blur. Smallwood and Hill are superb: by turns frightening and hilarious, with a crackling chemistry no doubt honed from their time together in the New York run of Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over. Smallwood, in particular, has a haunted, smoldering quality as the volcanic Lee that makes it hard to take your eyes off him. Reprising his performance from the original production, Francis Guinan brings a blinkered amiability to the role of Saul, a Hollywood producer whom Lee snatches from Austin over a game of golf.
While much has been made about Steppenwolf returning to the play that made it famous, this True West is not an exercise in nostalgia. Quite the opposite: By dialing up the play’s slapstick-comedy elements, Arney and company adopt a jaundiced view of toxic masculinity. (That the bungalow actually belongs to their mother, played by Jacqueline Williams, feels more significant than usual.) The more the pair drink—and boy, do they drink—the more they devolve into boys, complete with major daddy issues. Casting two black men in these roles sharpens the play’s uncanny sense of dislocation, removing the brothers even further from the lily-white westerns they revere. This True West can’t have the seismic impact of its predecessor, but it’s not beholden to its legacy, either. The map is already there; Arney, Smallwood and Hill are pointing the way forward.
Steppenwolf Theatre Company. By Sam Shepard. Directed by Randal Arney. With Jon Michael Hill, Namir Smallwood, Francis Guinan, Jacqueline Williams. Running time: 2hrs. One intermission.