WARWICK – An early scene in The Gamm Theatre’s vivid production of “True West” tells you all you need to know about the brothers in the story.
Austin, dressed in a pastel polo shirt and pressed khaki slacks, sits at a typewriter, forcing himself to work on one of the screenplays that comprise his profession. Lee, unkempt and standing too close in a sweaty T-shirt, looms over him, guzzling a beer.
The moment leaves a strong impression because, without a word, it says so much about the brothers, their relationship and the inevitable conflict that will arise.
It’s characteristic of this entire visually rich production that we see and sense first, then process intellectually. The approach, taken by director Tony Estrella, turns Sam Shepard’s black comedy into a wonderfully visceral experience.
Set in 1980, the play begins with the unexpected reunion of Austin and Lee at their mother’s home in suburban California. Mother is on vacation, and Austin has left wife and children at home, seeking solitude to finish up his latest screenplay and close the deal with his agent, Saul Kimmer.
Solitude, as we know from that aforementioned scene, is history once Lee arrives. He’s there for his own “career,” scouting the neighborhood for homes to rob.
Austin tries to keep the lid on years of sibling rivalry and recriminations until Lee starts pitching his own idea for a Western to Austin’s agent, and incongruously, Saul bites. That crosses a line for Austin, and the lid blows off. The play, as well, goes from realistic to absurd levels of physical confrontation, hilarious yet almost frightening.
But underneath the action is insight into sibling rivalry, feelings of worth or worthlessness, and how these brothers may be more alike than different.
The Gamm production shows as much as it tells us about these themes, and the memorable visuals begin with Michael McGarty’s realistic and very detailed set featuring an ’80s kitchen and a glowingly lighted sunroom; lighting designer Jeff Adelberg gets credit for creating sunny California. The set is so specific there even is butter for the toast, which turns up in a wild scene you won’t forget.
Equally brilliant are actors Steve Kidd as Austin and Anthony Goes as Lee. Each capitalizes on physical characteristics to portray both superficial differences – neat vs. sloppy – but body language that says everything about who’s in charge, for the moment.
Kidd’s emotional discipline and Goes’ volatility feel intrinsic, and yet when they go ballistic, that feels natural, too. Those scenes, fueled by anger, alcohol and one-upmanship, stay just within the bounds of plausibility, which ironically makes them even funnier than if they were exaggerated.
But these talented actors also can scale it down, as in the brothers’ brief but telling confessions of how each saw the other’s path in life. Kidd and Goes give must-see performances.
Playwright Shepard is known for his black comedies with underlying insight, and the Gamm does it all: the blackness, the insight and the comedy.
Performances of “True West” continue through May 5 at The Gamm Theatre, 1245 Jefferson Blvd. Tickets are $44, $52 and $60; call (401) 723-4266 or order at gammtheatre.org.