To Austin, fresh toast smells like salvation. “I love the smell of toast,” says the fussy, Ivy League–pedigreed, aspiring Hollywood screenwriter. “And the sun’s coming up. It makes me feel like anything’s possible. Ya know?”
Playwright Sam Shepard doesn’t. As redemptive as Austin finds the aroma—and the toast, prepared onstage in eight gleaming toasters, certainly smells like hot, buttery comfort—True West is true Shepard, which means there’s no easy deliverance at hand. The 1980 play is a simultaneously claustrophobic and sprawling character study of two brothers, Austin (Kenneth Baldino) and his older brother, Lee (Matthew DiBiasio), a Busch-swigging, sticky-fingered vagabond in a sweat-stained T-shirt and cowboy boots. The actors couldn’t be more physically different: The rangy DiBiasio hops onto the kitchen counter, spreading his legs wide, eyes bulging in ways alternately dazed and crazed. Baldino, meanwhile, slight and fine-featured, clutches his knees together at the table, cowering before his sibling. The action takes place in suburban L.A., where Austin is living at their mother’s house and laboring on the Great American Screenplay. When Lee shows up unannounced—and with a movie idea of his own—the brothers lurch from fruitful cooperation to jealous squabbling, from painful reminiscence to corrosive cruelty.
Director Devon Allen plays up True West’s dark undercurrents. That’s not to say she forgoes Shepard’s prickly comedy: Austin looks lovingly at his gaggle of stolen toasters as if preparing to read them a bedtime story. But the production acknowledges the play’s thematically expansive nature, as well as its fundamentally claustrophobic environs. For Shepard, as for Frederick Jackson Turner nearly a century before him, the West is closed, the myth of ever-unfolding grandeur and endless opportunity gone. Lee talks of running off to the Mojave, but instead the brothers sit in the kitchen, getting drunk on Jack Daniel’s and lunging at one another.
The staging, too, is nimble. Actors change costumes onstage and move about the props themselves, lending the production a lived-in feel. At times, you can see the actors acting, and they telegraph the play’s more volatile moments. But there are moments when the performance seizes you, as when Austin tenderly and funnily recalls how their father lost all his teeth, and then his dentures. Or, of course, when the theater fills with the smell of warm toast.
SEE IT: Lincoln Hall, Portland State University, 1620 SW Park Ave., 725-3307. 8 pm Thursdays-Sundays through Aug. 18. $10-$15.