Theater reviews

“True West”

When the house lights came up for the intermission of “True West” at Seattle Repertory Theatre, people couldn’t believe it. “That was 45 minutes?” one lady next to me asked nobody in particular. “That was fast!”

I’m with her. This “True West,” Sam Shepard’s 1981 American classic, directed by Braden Abraham, is tense and exquisitely paced. Its pauses are perfectly pregnant, allowing the dialogue’s ominous undercurrents to well up beneath the words, with blackouts between scenes so crisp, they feel cinematic. It flew by.

The story unravels in a modest, suburban Southern California home where two brothers (timid writer, surly burglar) dance around the question of whether to love or murder each other — or whether the two options are mutually exclusive.

Austin (Zachary Ray Sherman) is house sitting for mom, who has skipped off to Alaska for vacation, and working on a screenplay, hoping to land a deal with Saul (Brandon J. Simmons), a tall, preppy, golf-playing Hollywood producer.

But his older brother Lee (Kevin Anderson) has turned up with a six-pack, a shaggy ponytail, a white T-shirt that looks like it’s seen more sweat than water, and an attitude so swollen, it threatens to burst the house from the inside. (That house, beautifully designed by Tim Mackabee, is long and low, like a movie in letterbox format. With so much black space above the stage, it feels like the sky could crush us all.)

Things get hairy quickly. Every exchange (about the heat, Austin’s screenplay, the sound of crickets) feels like one more skirmish leading inexorably to uncivil war. When Austin nervously floats the idea that Lee might find another neighborhood to burgle while he’s in town, the older brother shrugs him off: “Yer not gonna’ have to worry about me! I’ve been doin’ all right without you … Now all I wanna’ do is borrow yer car.”

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Their relationship is a snake pit of mutual envy and self-loathing (book smarts vs. street smarts, a classic) but they both intuitively understand that while Austin might know a thing or two about the modern American novel, Lee is the authority on violence. And when Lee talks his way into a game of golf with the Hollywood producer (“I got a couple a’ ‘projects’ he might be interested in. Real commercial”), the heat on their long-simmering rivalry ticks up several notches.

Sherman and Anderson are excellently matched, with Anderson bringing intricate and surprisingly empathetic nuance to Lee, who could be easily and lazily played as a one-dimensional brute.

“Shepard was ahead of his time in writing about the violence and insecurity of white men,” Abraham wrote by email, “and the destruction they leave in their wake — without romanticizing it or offering any kind of tidy resolution.”

This “West,” and Anderson’s Lee, are more deeply affecting, and deeply frightening, because they’re not from some monstrous parallel dimension. They’re from here.

“True West” by Sam Shepard. Through Feb. 16; Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle; $17-$88; 206-443-2222, seattlerep.org

“Our Country’s Good”

At a glance, you might not think “True West” and “Our Country’s Good” have much in common besides being written by white authors at either end of the ’80s. But the accident of them running in concurrent productions (Seattle Rep and Strawberry Theatre Workshop, respectively) makes the two strangely resonant companion pieces.

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Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 1988 Tony Award winner takes place in 1780s Sydney, Australia (or at least the penal colony that’s trying to become Sydney), where exiled convicts and their bitter soldier-guards can’t decide whether they’re building a new society or just running an especially brutal offshore prison — or whether the two are mutually exclusive. Sound familiar?

As in “West,” the characters of “Country” are perched on the edge of a literal desert and all it symbolizes: danger; wildness; the peril and allure of escape and criminal, anarchic freedom. And, as in “West,” there’s a lot of drama about a script.

Some of the more humane soldier-guards, led by Lt. Ralph Clark (a baleful Miguel Castellano), think putting on a play might help enrich the minds and souls of their wretched charges, whose main form of entertainment is watching each other get hanged for stealing food from the storehouse.

“You want this vice-ridden vermin to enjoy themselves?” spits Maj. Robbie Ross (Pilar O’Connell).

That tees up Capt. Arthur Phillip (played by Galen Joseph Osier as a sad and thoughtful idealist) for an inspiring speech: “The theater is an expression of civilization … It will remind them that there is more to life than crime, punishment … for a few hours we will no longer be despised prisoners and hated gaolers. We will laugh, we may be moved, we may even think a little.”

The skeptics are not converted, but the play goes on — and the camaraderie and discipline of being in a show begins to work its transformational magic. In one excellent scene, Maj. Ross is brutalizing and humiliating women convicts for sport (“on all fours — now wag your tail and bark, and I’ll throw you a biscuit”) when the actors interrupt him by flipping into character and launching into rehearsal.

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Director Leah Adcock-Starr has cobbled together a capable 11-member ensemble with a few actors that distinguish themselves, including O’Connell as the gleefully sadistic Maj. Ross and Tim Gouran as the tortured Harry Brewer, who feels more kinship with the convicts than his fellow jailers.

Like “West,” there’s no tidy resolution between the artists and the bruisers. The pen is not mightier than the sword, but the sword can’t quite sever the pen. They are forever deadlocked.

“Our Country’s Good” by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Through Feb. 22; Strawberry Theatre Workshop at 12th Avenue Arts, 1620 12th Ave., Seattle; $10-$36; 800-838-3006, strawshop.org