Moving along in its 89th season, Winneshiek Playhouse opens “True West,” tomorrow evening. The play marks the first presentation without the theatre’s beloved Anna Belle Nimmo who passed away in April. A moving tribute in the program by actor Rich Burkinshaw reminds us all how passionate her dedication to the theatre and how zealous her character to the end of her 90 some years. We will always look for the vibrant redhead in Row E.
This impactful play in two acts, “True West,” was written by Sam Shepard and premiered in 1980. It follows WP’s last play, Ira Levin’s unpredictable “Deathtrap” (directed by Tom Myers) written in about the same era. There’s a pecking typewriter in both plays, but the similarities end there especially as Shepard builds sensitive complications into his characters, rather than flamboyant unpredictability as the earlier play.
Tana Gundry is pleased to take on “True West,” having already directed scenes from it at Columbia College of Chicago. Lucky for her, there is an extraordinary cast ready to take it on as well. The scene, designed by Gundry, Mike Oliva and Ash Ahrens, features the vastness of the Southwestern desert with the mere indication of windows by hanging wooden frames. A few crickets cricking and howls howling appropriately set the mood.
Two key characters carry the freight of the entire play, an exhaustive interaction between brothers of dysfunction who stumble into their own demons. And, convenient for the dynamics of their angst, they seem polar opposites at the onset.
Lee has all the red-neck traits necessary to sport his special brand of ignorance, shout by shout with an \”ain’t\” in every sentence. Always a beer in hand, he is testy and volatile with a blustering temper at every turn as he thieves his way through life. Brother Austin is a reserved, educated and intelligent rule-follower. They meet after five years of estrangement as the contrasting personalities light a fire for humor. Lee shouts on one hand, then mocks in a soprano voice on the other. Austin attempts to enlighten his brother, but sinks into the futility of leading a horse to water.
These characters seem etched in script so far, then gradually fool even themselves as dysfunction unravels the situation. A responsible person versus a worthless vagabond also begs questions, “Who is better off?” or “How fragile are our appearances?”
Justin Pasch as Lee is perfectly cast to embody the downfalls of an oaf who has lost his way in life. His size is the first obvious key to the role, but Pasch digs further into the character as if he felt the reality of a family gone awry. Moreover, his decibels of anger can shake the roof, then quickly turn into a confused gaze of vulnerability, like a small child wondering where his dog went in the desert.
Adam Moderow as brother Austin is most fit for his role, steady and slightly built with a small tension of worry that his bully brother may ruin his seemingly comfortable life. Inevitably,his character falls apart as well and shares a brilliant drunken scene with Pasch where each slur of dialogue is breath-holding as each silence is louder than the slurs. The rhythm is impeccable as is the range of versatility in both actors. Believable. Believable.
Two more minor entrances serve to add justification to the scenario. Austin’s comfortable façade is strengthened by the appearance of movie producer Saul Kimmer whose veneer develops further contrast to Lee’s deceptions. As Saul, Rich Burkinshaw fits this role with his rich voice of sophistication, too proper to fail, but does like everyone else. Brief entrance of a bewildered mother assures that family dysfunctions are larger than her grasp of life. Vicki Hooper embraces her minor role (she clocks up 54 lines if she doesn’t forget any, she claims) as her lazy accent enters the disaster in the same fog as her sons.
Fasten your seat belt for “True West” that opens tomorrow evening May 8 at Winneshiek Playhouse, 228 W Clark St., and runs May 9, 14, 15 and 16. All performances are 7:30 p.m. Tickets go fast at (815) 232-7023 or