Saturday, August 3, 2019

True West by Sam Shepard

L - R Johnny Clark and Andrew Hawkes - Photos by Carlos R. Hernandez

By Joe Straw


Austin (Johnny Clark) palms his lower jaw, elbows on the table, staring at the sheets of paper and a typewriter with pernicious lines etched on his face.  He’s not getting anything done now, whether it’s because of writers block, or the ominous blackened figure behind him, staring at him. 

As Austin thinks about his next move, the shadowy vibration becomes visible in the focusing light, like a realized figment of Austin’s imagination.

Lee (Andrew Hawkes) has shown up, quite expectedly or unexpectedly, in their mother’s house, while Mom (Carole Goldman) is off visiting Alaska.  It is “an older home in a Southern California suburb, about 40 miles east of L.A.”

Austin feels Lee’s stares, his darker self, knowing any question could trigger a tsunami of unwanted remarks or unprovoked attacks.   

Just by the looks of him, Lee is a troubled figure, a homeless wreckage of a man. Now looking like he has crawled through the Arizona desert to get here.  A blackened white t-shirt hangs from his shoulders; a trench coat, over the top of that, throws off dust and dirt at every passing turn. But, just to be fair, his worn brown shoes match his belt and he shows some semblance of flair and style.

The aesthetic impressions will last forever, and that’s just how Austin wanted it to be.  

Also, Lee is not skin and bones, a practicality of knowing how to procure an assortment of nourishment, possibly a left over pizza behind a pizza parlor, or various forms of pilfering, and a mental list of pawnbrokers at his disposals. 

But, how and why did he suddenly appear?  To be reacquainted with his long lost brother? One thinks not.

Austin can’t help but offer a little smile.

Austin, suddenly stimulated by the creative juices flowing, takes notes of his own appearance, looks to be a few years out of college wearing a summer shirt and a crisp pair of ironed jeans. Not the sort of image of a serious writer would be caught dead in like Hemingway, McCarthy, Kafka, Camus, Chayefsky, or Bukowski.  Not even Bukowski but that was something else to ponder.  

Vs. Theatre Company presents True West by Sam Shepard, directed by Scott Cummins, and produced by Johnny Clark and Andrew Hawkes through August 31, 2019.

If there’s one thing Austin did or didn’t need right now was Lee being there.  This was his time alone, away from his wife and kids up north.  Languishing in the quiet time may or may not have been just for him and his creation. Or, maybe he needed a primer.

And, as always, written conflict is created in the blink of an eye.

Lee will leave only if he can get Austin’s car keys.  Austin, under pressure, must get rid of Lee to prepare for his meeting with a producer the following day. So, Austin reluctantly agrees to the deal, turning over the keys and sealing the deal so that Lee does not interrupt their meeting. What fun is that?

Beware of the dealmaker.  Their reasoning is unjust and their end goal is not to your benefit.

So, what is the deal?

After schmoozing with Austin for a time, Saul (David Starzyk), the producer, is caught off guard by a homeless man carrying a TV into the kitchen. Introductions are made and pleasantries are exchanged.  

But, despite reservations, Saul takes a liking to Lee.  Lee invites Saul to a round a golf, and even invites himself to Saul’s club the following morning. It’s a date.

One can easily look at the play and view it from an impossible angle. For some reason I found myself thinking that Austin and Lee are the same man. It’s not far fetched thinking.  This is Sam Sheppard. The night sent me away discovering a unique perspective, and one that would excite my overactive imagination. Austin calls on his demon to get him through the day or through the screenplay.  They are never apart; they feed on one another, and even change roles to benefit their needs. Seeing the play from that perspective gives me inspiration.

So, why is Lee there? One cannot honestly say.

But, one is not sure if this was the intention of Scott Cummings, the director, visually it suggests such, but whatever his intention was just blows the roof off of this production, right from the start, on this night, and to this sold out audience. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this or thought about it with so much fervor.

Still, I have some thoughts.

First of al Vs. Theatre is a wonderful theatre on Pico.  Street parking is easy. Everyone there is warm and welcoming. Seating is in the lobby until everyone is marched around to the back entrance, through the vomitory, and to the seats.

The set, from Danny Cistone, Production Designer, is the first thing you see—a kitchen with unnerving slamming pantries, the same slammed by both brothers. And the dinning alcove is downstage right center where most of the action takes place. And, at the end of the show, the cleanup is significant.

L - R Andrew Hawkes and Johnny Clark 

Johnny Clark is exceptional as Austin.  Austin is the muse to his brother’s action. Carefully taking mental notes during the course of his observation.  Wanting to embody his brother’s successful and unorthodox ways, he becomes his brother. And, that he finds, is or is not the answer. At first, Austin seems almost terrified that his brother has appeared, and then accepting, but before turning, Austin shows little regard to moving in his brother’s stead.  

Andrew Hawkes as Lee prowls around the stage waiting for openings to strike.  Hawkes’ backstory is prevalent and his craft awe-inspiring.  He is constantly thinking and relaxed in concentration as he moves about the stage.  There is hardly a wasted movement. The pencil scene needs a slight focus. Not only is he trying to find the pencil but he is showing his brother how a desperate man behaves for the need of this one tool.

David Starzyk has always impressed me with his work since seeing him in The Closeness of the Horizon by Richard Martin. Here, as the producer Saul, he is manhandled by the creative types that surrounded him and he is able to move with the punches. Dodging and weaving to get the best deal is his motto.  Maybe, Saul should find a way to win before leaving.

Carol Goldman has her moments as Mom coming back from Alaska.  She comes back home to find a mess, and the mess is all she can see. She pays scant attention to the one or two men in the room, especially in the end when she leaves in frustration. Those relationships need to be clearer and probably will be during the course of the run. Still, Carol is very funny in the role.

Gelareh Khalioun, Costume Designer, places all actors beautifully in the 1980s.

Derrick McDaniel, Lighting Designer, gives complete focus to the director’s ideas.

I love the sound of Lindsay Jones’ (Sound Designer) crickets in this production.

This is the first time I’ve come across a “Violence Designer”. Ned Mochel was that man and the end is very graphic.  A job well done.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Justine Vickery – Assistant Stage Manager
Marcy Capoferri – Box Office Manager
Brian Dunning – Graphic Designer

Run! Run! Run! And take a writer friend with a highly active imagination!

To purchase tickets, or for more information, please visit

Vs. Theatre
5453 W. Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA