Yes, there's a whiff of gimmickry in staging Sam Shepard's True West in an Airstream trailer in a backyard in Brookside. Still, at a moment in our cultural history when I'd bet we have more Americans in prison than attending live theater, gimmickry isn't a bad idea. Especially when the gimmickry results in an atmosphere that director Bess Wallerstein has managed here.
In a leafy yard with crickets sawing, cans of soda floating in coolers, and shadows thickening as the play grows darker, this True West feels like an event. I saw more couples leaning into each other at this utterly unromantic show than at any since Othello in Southmoreland Park. If Wallerstein lugged in boxes of Franzia, she'd have a capital date night.
The show is good, too. Shepard's fractious comedy of brothers battling in suburban Los Angeles — that wasted American Eden — is so lashing, incisive and funny that the actors' jobs are not to screw it up. They don't, for the most part, and one even manages some rough-edged glory. As Lee, a ne'er-do-well burglar, Erik Johnson bulls through the first act, making powerful sense of the contradictions in contemporary American tough guys. His Lee walks tall but is cheaply sentimental. He believes in the wide-open myth of the West even as he fails to scrape by in it.
Lee's brother Austin (Shaun Patrick Hennessy) is a screenwriter, which Lee disdains the same way he disdains anything he's not good at. Lee's low points are Johnson's highs: When Lee swigs his beer and argues that his work of robbing houses is more noble than Austin's work of making movies, we laugh not because Johnson is going for comedy but because he's so convincingly full of shit.
The show pulses with conflict (in scenes sharply paced by Wallerstein) and climaxes with violence (never as convincing as it should be), but its finest moments concern more tentative connections. Lee and the nebbishy Austin have both turned up at their mother's house — the trailer, in this production — while she is vacationing. The brothers, who haven't spent much time together in years, drink a lot, pick amusingly at each other and sometimes knock each other around — imagine a modern Cain and Abel embodying that American conflict between "elitists" and self-designated regular folks. Eventually, they collaborate on a treatment outlining Lee's idea for a movie — a western — and Shepard grants Lee some beautiful-but-impossible descriptions of two men chasing each other across the Great Plains. Moments like these evoke both the iconic appeal and the deep silliness of westerns.
The stage is a small deck extending from the trailer's wide hatch of a door. Lee and Austin stand at its thrust and talk to the sawing crickets. Cool as this setup is, it causes some confusion: At first, we're not clear whether they're inside or out, on a porch or in some add-on. Occasionally, characters refer to other rooms, which are impossible considering the trailer's dimensions. Such quibbles don't kill this strong, involving show, but they do add up. Each time an audience has to re-imagine something as fundamental as the physical space, the show's reality grows more remote. This kind of environmental theater might be a more atmospheric experience, but isn't it meant to be a more seamless one?
In the program for the UMKC graduate theater department's half-spare, half-lavish production of Wendy Wasserstein's The Heidi Chronicles, director Donna Thomason promises not to "smack of feminism."
Here's an academic production of a play by a feminist playwright apologizing for addressing the difficulties that women face while trying to be all that the '60s promised. The show jaunts through the last third of the 20th century, offering baby boomer nostalgia and ruminations — both wise and wised-up — on the costs of societal trailblazing. We follow the education and adventures of Heidi Holland (Ashlee LaPine), a Seven Sisters intellectual who flirts with radicalism, neuroticism and a couple of guy friends without commiting to any of these. Instead, she loves art history, the subject of the evening's best monologues.
Blazing through decades and scenes alternately sharp and labored, Heidi and her friends don smashing period outfits and dance to smartly timed period hits, demonstrating the professionalism of UMKC's technical designers, and the acting often keeps pace. As a blissed-out hippy who becomes a pushy Hollywood executive, Rachel Hirshorn displays impressive comic invention. T.J. Chasteen charms as a pediatrician, save when he's forced to jabber in silly voices. At one penetrating moment, Wasserstein has Heidi describing herself as feeling both worthless and superior. LaPine nails superior but rarely worthless. Her face never crowds with both at once like a true neurotic's. Still, she's a charismatic performer, and we root for her even if we never feel as much as we should. Too much happens too quickly, but when director Thomason slows down and lets LaPine face off with Heidi's lover Scoop (Todd Carlton Lanker), these rapid Chronicles become an arresting story. The rest of the time, the marvelous dress-up is almost enough.
Click here to write a letter to the editor.