Sam Shepard's True West has earned its reputation as a contemporary classic. The story of two brothers, Austin and Lee, this over-the-top, dark comedy explores the duality of human nature by separating it into two very different siblings. Austin is the "good" brother: a screenwriter with a stable life, successful career and a dearth of vices. Lee is the wild brother: unpredictable, hard-drinking, a drifter, impractical and sometimes violent, Lee personifies the legacy of both the brothers' father, who is referred to often enough in the play to become a kind of motif for irresponsibility and a dedication to living life on one's own terms. The irony of Shepard's story is that each brother envies the other and it is this envy that throws them together, with Lee trying to write the great American "true west" screenplay, while his straight-laced brother dabbles in petty crime and drunkenness. Set over the course of a few days in their vacationing mother's vacant desert home, True West descends into chaos as the brothers grasp in vain for new identities.
Bailiwick's Deaf Artist Program adds a new twist to the tale by making Lee, the wild brother, hearing-impaired. Michael J. Stark, as Lee, has the requisite John Malkovich look and mannerisms down for the part ( Malkovich originated the role with Gary Sinise for Steppenwolf ) . He does an excellent job, even without speaking any of Shepard's rough-hewn dialogue ( this Lee communicates with American Sign Language [ ASL ] ) . Equally good is Aaron Christensen as Austin, who has the thankless job of not only fleshing out his own role as the successful, responsible brother, but of translating almost everything his brother is saying for the hearing audience. And herein lies the problem of this production of True West. Having Austin rephrase everything Lee is saying so those of us who don't understand ASL can know what's going on is an awkward device and one which ultimately undercuts Shepard's escalating drama, crisp characterization and, unfortunately, his message. The translating becomes a gimmick, detracting too much from the very human drama unfolding on the stage. We're forced to think too much about how director Ronald Jiu is trying to translate True West into a production that can be done by the Deaf Artist Program instead of the valid tale the playwright so brilliantly conceived. At one point, when Austin and his agent, Saul ( the wooden and unfunny Marc Lessman ) are speaking, we see their words projected on a board behind them. This same simple device might have been an alternate route to providing a voice for Lee for those of us who don't understand ASL.
This is an ambitious production, with fine performances by the two leads, but, as a play incorporating the hearing-impaired, it just doesn't work. There's simply too many burdens placed on one character ( Austin ) for us to fully appreciate the fine balance Shepard was trying to impart when he was crafting his metaphor about the duality of our natures.