Two sparring brothers spur ‘True West’ at City of Fairfax Theatre Company

Sam Shepard's family feud makes an enjoyable show for theater buffs.

Brothers fight. Family relations are a never-ending struggle between, egos, wants, and desires. Those themes are in abundance in the City of Fairfax Theater Company’s production of True West by Sam Shepard.

Expertly directed by Matthew Chapman, True West explores the struggle between two brothers as they reconnect with each other after years apart, but behind that curtain lies a backstory of rivalry and resentment. Some critics think that True West — which premiered in 1980 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1983 — is the third of Sam Shepard’s Family Trilogy, which includes 1976’s Curse of the Starving Class and Buried Child in 1979.

Mikael Johnson as Austin and Christopher Andersen as Lee in ‘True West.’ Photo by Heather Regan.

On the one hand, you’ve got Austin, who is house-sitting for his mother while she’s away on an Alaska vacation. Austin is nerdy, cerebral, deliberate, and a little too smart for his own good. He’s got a wife and kids somewhere. His plans for using the isolation of his mother’s California home to finish writing his commissioned screenplay are sidetracked by the arrival of his crude and borderline sociopath older brother, Lee.

Speaking of Lee, he’s a drifter. He’s the type of guy who steals TVs and constantly asks to borrow your car. He’s crazy enough to live out in the Mojave Desert. (Apparently, he was looking for his dad out there.) He drinks Wild Turkey and Budweisers. Lee’s way of relating with his brother is best described as: overbearing.

Playing out in a small kitchen among a typewriter, golf clubs, and a kitchen drawer full of figurative flaws, the already simmering feud between the two brothers is intensified when the not-so-literate Lee proves he is much better at navigating Hollywood’s treacherous rapids than is the introspective Austin. It turns out a movie producer, Saul Kimmer, likes Lee’s modern-day Western pitch more than the “period piece” Austin is working on.

Mikael Johnson played his objectives well as Austin. Johnson is among other things a member of the improv show ShawnMikael(s). I loved how he performed Austin’s monologue about his dad’s false teeth and chop suey. I love how he played Austin’s bouts of rage and the role reversal, later in the play, as not-so-bright Lee attempted to be a writer. I had one minor quibble: he played drunk slightly over-drunk.

Baritone-voiced Christopher Andersen, recently seen in Little Theatre of Alexandria’s Dracula, played Lee with a combination of menace and mischievousness. He definitely made Lee unlikable.

Christopher Andersen as Lee, D. Scott Graham as Saul, and Mikael Johnson as Austin in ‘True West.’ Photo by Heather Regan.

D. Scott Graham played happy-go-lucky movie producer Saul Kimmer with an affable cheerfulness and a touch of naivete. Jessie Roberts played Austin and Lee’s mother in such a way that made me think: That mother did a terrible job raising her kids.

Mikael Johnson as Austin, Jessie Roberts as Mom, and Christopher Andersen as Lee in ‘True West.’ Photo by Heather Regan.

I don’t know what Costume Designer Lori Crokett did to Anderson’s A shirt to make it took dirty, but the stains on it looked contagious. Since the brothers in this play fight literally, the fight choreography had to be well done. Casey Kaleba made the physical tussling scary and loud. The sound effect of crickets was one of many impressive effects in Fletcher Lowe’s sound design.

The level of prop detail was superb. Luke Rahman supplied the set with such props as multiple Budweiser cans, Marlboro cigarettes cartons, state plates on the wall, an old rotary phone, and a Smith Corona typewriter. Tina Dempsey’s set design evoked a modest home, owned by a woman with modest tastes.

Chapman has directed an enjoyable show for theater buffs. The show will leave audiences thinking about the familial themes it brings up.

Running time: Two hours with one 15-minute intermission.

True West plays through May 8, 2022, presented by the City of Fairfax Theatre Company performing at Old Town Hall, 3999 University Drive, Fairfax, VA. Tickets ($25 adult, $20 student) can be purchased at the door or online.

COVID Safety: Masks are recommended, not required. Proof of vaccination is not required. The City of Fairfax Theatre Company’s complete COVID-19 policy is here.

TRUE WEST by Sam Shepard

Lee – Christopher Andersen
Austin – Mikael Johnson
Saul – D. Scott Graham
Mother – Jessie Roberts

Director – Matthew Chapman
Executive Producer – Michael O’Dell
Producers – David Britt, Jim Negley, Amanda Snellings
Fight Choreography – Casey Kaleba
Set Design – Tina Dempsey
Lighting Design – Stephen Shetler
Costume Design – Lori Crockett
Set Construction – Curtis Starr


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