True West at the Tin Ceiling: now through July 27
By
J. Gordon
7/20/2008 2:16:14 PM

A play is a weird thing: right there, sweat and flesh in front of you--the people and moments more real than TV or film, and yet… there’s something unnatural about it all. The dialogue is just a little too right. There are the lights, sound, costumes, the characters, the timing, the sets… plays live in that world that is more vivid and interesting than the lives we see in our own living rooms or kitchens—even if the set is designed as a flat-out mimicry of those very lives in our own living rooms or kitchens.

The Tin Ceiling Theater at 3159 Cherokee in South St. Louis is currently running Sam Shepard’s famous 1980's play, True West --just one of this famous playwright’s small-town, real-people American tales that perfectly demonstrates what a play oughta be. In a nutshell: two brothers meet after five years of estrangement, taking over their mother’s house while she vacations in Alaska. Lee, the oldest brother, is a no-good, alcoholic criminal drifter. Austin, the youngest, is an Ivy-league-schooled, successful Hollywood screenwriter. And over the course of a weekend, the two change roles, lives, and suffer not only the consequences of each other, but the larger prospect of doom for the foreseeable future.

As a “Directorless Theater”—The Tin Ceiling’s grand experiment to remove the middle-man and get closer to the audience and the material, the group is doing mostly a good job. Still, a director might push them to be better; especially to act more within the non-speaking parts. It was in those non-verbal moments, the waiting for the next line to be delivered, that the actors sometimes fell flat.

Austin, played by Andrew Byrd, didn’t really convey the initial confidence and success in the beginning of the play that’s written for that character. These qualities are really essential in contributing to his overall demise; Austin should fall farther than he does on Tin Ceiling’s stage.

Lee, played by Robert Strasser (also Tin Ceiling’s artistic director), was terrific in his alluring filth, his fast-talking bullshit and general untrustability. But did we ever really fear him? Almost, but not quite. That’s where those non-speaking parts might really come in handy.

Saul, the Hollywood executive played by Rory Flynn, did double-duty also handling the mother role at the end on this particular Saturday evening. As Saul, he was convincingly phony, if not looking the part of someone as loaded and powerful as he was supposed to be. As the mother, he lacked quite a bit of the confused, ditzy character in the script—consequently losing some of the best lines of the play. But given that the credits for the mother list a woman’s name, Gertrude (Trudy) Weir, he was most certainly the understudy. Still, under all those clothes and makeup, we didn’t recognize him ‘til the end. Kudos for that.

There were a few moments when the delivery of certain lines seemed different from the impressions a reader might get reading straight from the script. But this is ultimately the actor’s translation of character and the audience must trust the actor to feel it their way.

The greatest disappointment in this performance of True West was the lack of tension. The script is downright frightening by the third act, as we watch Austin lose his grasp and Lee take control of the situation.

While a couple points might have been missed from the script, it’s also important to know that a couple of subtleties were turned into things of beauty. Most prominently, the fierce love elder brother Lee continually inferred for their destitute, derelict father. Reading it, it was clear that he cared. To see it, however, was to know it. And this is what good acting does.

When all is said and done, there really isn’t much else to fault this small company on. They got the lines right and turned words into believable, living characters. They made good use of a small budget and stage. One could hardly expect the various stages of dying plants noted in the script—although some completely dead ones at the end would have been a nice touch. How much could dead plants cost?

True West continues through July 27, 2008 at the corner of Compton and Cherokee (3159 Cherokee) in South St. Louis. Tickets are $10. Visit www.myspace.com/thetinceiling, or visit www.tinceiling.org, or call 314-374-1511 for information.

 

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