True West

People's Light. Malvern, Pennsylvania.

Written by:
Don Shewey
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Circumstances conspired to allow me to trek to Malvern, PA, to see the People’s Light production of Sam Shepard’s True West, directed by Mei Ann Teo with an all-Asian cast and crew. I have a proprietary interest in Shepard, having written the first biography of the playwright and actor (mass-market paperback published in 1985, revised edition published in 1997). And I have a special attachment to True West, having seen and written about both the ill-fated first New York production at the Public Theater starring Tommy Lee Jones and Peter Boyle (1980) and the 1982 Steppenwolf production that rehabilitated the play’s reputation, thanks to its young unknown leads, John Malkovich and Gary Sinise (who also directed). I also saw (and didn’t love) the 2000 production directed by Matthew Warchus where Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly alternated in the leading roles. And very specifically, almost every day when I’m washing out my tea things, I think about the line early on when Lee establishes his mother’s obsession with tidiness (an important plot point) by saying, “She doesn’t like so much as a tea leaf in the sink.”

I heard about this all-Asian production from a Facebook post by Ralph Peña (artistic director of Ma-Yi Theater Company, one of New York’s two excellent Asian-American troupes), which mentioned that the role of the mother was being played by Ching Valdes-Aran, one of the underrecognized titans of downtown theater. It’s a little like hiring Helen Mirren to play the role of the Nurse in a regional production of Romeo and Juliet. Already intriguing! I was thrilled when friends we were scheduled to visit in Bucks County were amenable to taking a road trip to Malvern to see the Sunday matinee.

The dramaturgically ambitious production clearly exists in dialogue with previous iterations of the play and with Shepard’s fixation on the mythology of masculinity and the American west. In an impressive and pertinent lobby display, the director and her dramaturg Liana Irvine peel the white-people top-layer off of a map of the Southwest, revealing the historical presence and contributions of Asian-Americans throughout the territory. They refer not just to the most familiar examples of the Chinese laborers who built the railroads and the Japanese families sent to internment camps (aka prisons) at the start of World War II but also to Sri Lankan immigrants, Filipino farm workers, and others. This deeply researched display creates an enhanced context in which to view the play’s themes of insecurity, otherness, identity, inside/outside, and belonging.

None of the text has changed but, spoken by AAPI actors, certain lines take on additional resonance. While the two brothers are crashing at their mother’s house in suburban LA, drifter and ne’er-do-well Lee points out that aspiring screenwriter Austin sticks out in the neighborhood, which he himself views with an outsider’s wistfulness. “Like a paradise. Kinda place that sorta kills ya inside. Warm yellow lights. Mexican tile all around. Copper pots hangin’ over the stove. Ya know, like they got in the magazines. Blonde people movin’ in and outa the rooms, talkin’ to each other.”

The play takes place in the early 1980s, before the internet and smartphones, at a time when Hollywood had little use for Asians who weren’t named Bruce Lee. So the scenes where Austin and Lee compete to pitch story ideas to producer Saul have a shared sense of fighting an uphill battle for representation, although with today’s eyes we also can’t help tracking the tiny inroads that Crazy Rich Asians and Parasite have helped pave for artists of AAPI descent working in the film industry. And an inspired comic moment occurs when Mom returns from a trip to Alaska unexpectedly early. Although they’ve completely trashed her beautiful kitchen, the instant they see their mother the two brothers kick off their shoes – a bit you wouldn’t see in any other production of True West.

It was apparently Sanjit De Silva’s desire to play Austin that provided the impetus for this True West. He’s well-cast as the handsome and slightly bland Austin, well-balanced by Ron Domingo’s scruffy hound-dog Lee. (Greg Watanabe as Saul captures the character’s ambiguity – is this guy an experienced film producer or is he as much of a hustler on the make as anybody else?) In the course of the play, Austin and Lee reverse roles to some extent, alter-egos or two sides of the same coin. One of a series of plays loosely based on Shepard’s own family history, True West generally suggests that Austin takes after his civilized mother, while Lee takes after their renegade, drunken, desert-hermit father. But Ching Valdes-Aran gives the mother a slightly different twist. Always a quietly powerful and somewhat enigmatic presence onstage, Valdes-Aran as the returning matriarch enters wearing all white, like a shaman in ceremony. She is upset at the state of her abode, debris everywhere, a bizarre abundance of toasters, plants unwatered. And yet she’s a little off-center herself. She cut her vacation short not just because she was homesick but because she heard Picasso was in town and she wanted to see him in person. For the first time, I glimpsed the way in which at least some of Lee’s jangly derangement comes not just from his cranky, reclusive father but also from his slightly cuckoo mother.

I liked how You-Shin Chen’s scenic design put a spin on the standard family-play kitchen set. Looped in on itself, with unpredictable bursts of glitchy video projection, the scenic design keeps the audience slightly unsettled, to make space for the play’s theatricality and its metaphysical underpinnings.

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