Harsh Hall Sheds Light On Play's Pathological Power

Western Maryland's 'True West' A Success For New Director

October 17, 1990|By Tim Weinfeld | Tim Weinfeld,Contributing theater critic

The audience sits on very steep set of risers on three sides of a small, square stage -- an appropriate position and angle from which to view this confrontation. One feels like a spectator in an operating theater watching the adversaries surgically invade, dissect and expose each other.

For the production of Sam Sheppard's challenging two-act play, "True West," the Dorothy Elderdice Theatre at Western Maryland College has been returned to the "black box" configuration that existed before the 1978 renovation of Alumni Hall. The usual proscenium stage has been eliminated.

The scenery and lighting provided by Steve Parsons is clean, clear and just realistic enough to support the unfolding relationship of two brothers engaged in role-reversal and sibling rivalry of pathological proportions.

Parsons' most striking contribution to the highly effective production is his choice of increasing the intensity of the illumination with each ensuing scene, so that by the end of this two-hour onslaught, there is no escaping the glare and pain of the truths revealed.

The story concerns a West Coast scriptwriter who is house-sitting for his mother while she is on vacation. He is joined by his violent, sociopathic brother who has been "in the desert."

The two characters often have been compared to Cain and Abel. And while there may be adequate justification for this, "True West," as with all of Sheppard's plays, is wide open to interpretations as diverse as the themes and stories.

The action of the play centers on the crossing of the boundaries of personality disorders, and the journey is both fascinating and horrifying.

Undergraduate actors Andy Wood and Keith Purcaro, in the roles first played by John Malkovich and Gary Sinese in the original and famous Steppenwolf Theatre production, are breathtaking.

They are well supported by Michela Patterson as the mother who returns in the final minutes of the play only to find her home and her sons all but destroyed. Her passivity speaks volumes, and her one brief burst of violence gives credence to all the theories of heredity and genetic disposition Less effective is Scott Grocki as the movie mogul, who is played too young for a successful Hollywood producer and too stereotypical for a play devoid of such generalizations. Grocki is not helped by Sheppard, who asks us to believe that the producer goes to the writer instead of vice versa.

Director Steve Miller, a costumer by trade, has demonstrated directorial strengths expected from much more experienced practitioners. He has paced the piece effectively, invested it with great variety and interest and communicated Sheppard's elaborate symbolism without resorting to blatancy.

His production of "True West" rings true in the way it demonstrates the true power of the West as represented by the frantic and destructive quest for money and power in Lalaland, the movie capital of the Western world.

Miller may be faulted for allowing his actors to resort to shouting in the culminating scene but cannot be for the harrowing moment when our most popular means of communication is violently used to kill communication.

Theatergoers unfamiliar with Sheppard will welcome an unusual opportunity to experience him in this worthy production. Fans of symbols and metaphor and ambiguity will have a field day.

The final performance of "True West" is at 8 tonight at the Dorothy Elderdice Theatre in Alumni Hall at Western Maryland College. Seating is limited.

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