True West: The big surprise is how relevant Sam Shepard’s play still feels

Galway International Arts Festival review: Director Randall Arney has crafted a solid production from classic material


Town Hall Theatre
Rating: 4/5

It is hard not to watch Sam Shepard’s play True West from 1980 without thinking of all the work that it inspired. Watching it at the Town Hall Theatre, Martin McDonagh’s The Lonesome West, which premiered at the venue in 1997, immediately comes to mind. Shepard’s fraternal conflict probes American masculinity and the myth of the West, but the dysfunctional flavour of the family drama chimes with a similar tradition in Irish theatre. The warring brothers could have stepped out of a Tom Murphy play; their conflicting, doubled identities recall Brian Friel’s innovation in Philadelphia, Here I Come!

Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre first performed True West in 1982, and there is a fluid ease in this new presentation. However, the casting of Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood in the central roles adds an extra dimension to the family dynamic, which brings an immediate freshness to the work. As screenwriter Austin (Hill) is confronted by his vagrant brother Lee (Smallwood), we might be watching an episode of Donald Glover’s recent dark comedy series Atlanta.

Austin and Lee are holed up in their mother’s house on the edge of the desert. Outside, crickets and coyotes are disturbing the peace. (Richard Woodbury’s sound design is perfectly pitched between ambient and annoying.) However, inside the noise is even worse. Austin is trying to write a screenplay, and Lee — determined to out-do his brother — has decided he has a few ideas himself and won’t stop talking. When movie producer Saul Kimmer (Randall Arney) arrives, the power dynamic between the brothers begins to shift, as Lee convinces him that Hollywood needs “a real western, a true life western”, and that he is the one to come up with the authentic goods.

Hill and Smallwood bring an anarchic energy to the sparring siblings, with Hill slowly abasing himself as Austin turns into his brother and Smallwood straightening his posture and enunciation with Lee’s rise. By the second act, however, they are both rolling around on the filthy floor, where they find that the most benign domestic objects can be weapons. Director Arney has crafted a solid production from classic material. There are few surprises, except how relevant it still feels.


Runs until Saturday, July 23rd, as part of Galway International Arts Festival

Sara Keating

Sara Keating

Sara Keating, a contributor to The Irish Times, is an arts and features writer