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True West
by Sam Shepard
Directed by William Whitaker
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
April 12, 2019

William Humphrey, Isaigh Di Lorenzo
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio has just opened the final play of their 2018-2019 season, and it’s a certainly a wild one. True West by celebrated playwright/screenwriter/actor Sam Shepard is a caustically comic look at family relationships, show business, and more. It’s definitely on the “unusual” side to say the least, and STLAS has staged it with their usual flair, and an excellent cast of local actors.

The story is set in Southern California in what appears to be the early 1980s, reflected in Patrick Huber’s impressively detailed set. The central characters are two brothers–college-educated screenwriter Austin (William Humphrey) and the gruff, confrontational Lee (Isaiah Di Lorenzo), who lives more of a wandering life and has just returned from a stint in “the desert”. Austin is house-sitting for the brothers’ mother (Susan Kopp), who is on an extended vacation in Alaska, and he’s working diligently on a film script, anticipating a meeting with producer Saul (William Roth)–a meeting that Lee ends up crashing, and making a surprisingly positive impression on Saul. The play charts the increasingly antagonistic and competitive relationship between the brothers, as each begins to take on aspects of the other’s personality in surprising ways, some of which involve typewriters, televisions, and toasters. That’s all I will say, since the comedy of the piece revolves a lot around the element of surprise. It’s an usual story, to say the least, with larger-than-life characters, gritty dialogue, and fast-moving situations.

The comedy also hinges a lot on characterization, as the two very different brothers begin to show that they might not be as different as they thought. It’s a lot of “reaction” humor, as the brothers keep doing things that surprise one another. Humphrey, as the more strait-laced Austin, is especially hilarious in his transformation. Di Lorenzo, as the more initially outrageous Lee, is also convincing, and the actors play off of each other well. There are also fine performances from Roth as the somewhat fickle producer Saul, and Roth as the brothers’ mother, who is surprising in her own way.

The technical aspects of the show, as is usual for STLAS, are well done. The small space at the Gaslight Theater is used especially well, transforming belivably into a suburban California dwelling, and the props are great, too, such as the vintage typewriter and a variety of household appliances. Steve Miller’s lighting also contributes well to the tone of the show, as do Andrea Robb’s costumes, which suitably reflect the characters’ personalities. The staging is smart and fast-paced, as well, with Shaun Sheley’s fight choreography of special note.

True West isn’t a show for everyone, and at moments it seems like the story is just weird for the sake of being weird, which some viewers might find especially hilarious and others might find frustrating.  Still, the characterizations are strong and the STLAS actors are especially well-cast. It’s a memorable way to close out the season.

William Humphrey, WIlliam Roth
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

 

St. Louis Actor’s Studio is presenting True West at the Gaslight Theater until April 28, 2019

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Eat Your Heart Out
by Courtney Baron
Directed by William Whitaker
R-S Theatrics
December 7, 2014

Katie Donnelly, Casey Boland Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Katie Donnelly, Casey Boland
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

A nervous man and woman who are meeting for the first time after connecting via a computer dating site share an awkward first date at an art museum.  Elsewhere, another nervous man and woman–a married couple–are preparing their home for a visit from a social worker, whose report will help determine their suitability to adopt a baby from overseas.  At the same time, a teenage girl and her male best friend discuss her frustration about being bullied at school because of her weight.  This is only the beginning of R-S Theatrics’ fascinating new production, Courtney Baron’s Eat Your Heart Out.  How these seemingly unrelated stories fit together is part of the drama of this piece, and the very strong performances and inventive staging make it riveting to watch.

Aside from the brief description of its premise, it’s very difficult to talk about this play without spoiling the suspense. Discovering how the plot lines fit together is part of this show’s appeal, although there’s much more to it than that mystery.  The key connecting figure is the woman on the first computer date, Nance (Ann Marie Mohr).who is a social worker and the mother of Evie (Katie Donnelly), the distraught teenager.  Nance is also the one visiting the nervous married couple Alice (Michelle Hand) and Gabe (Eric Dean White), revealing a little bit too much about her own personal life in the process.  There are more surprises I won’t spoil, but the real drama here comes from the relationships, and what the various interactions reveal about Nance and her relationships with those around her. She starts out likable enough, but the way she deals with the home visit and with her daughter reveals a selfish streak, and complex reasons behind her actions.  The writing is dynamic and believable, with a good balance of drama and humor. Many issues are dealt with, leading to an ending that asks more questions than it answers.

All of the characters here have more depth than is initially apparent, and the excellent cast here convincingly brings out all those layers of complexity. The most compelling story is Evie’s. As an overweight teenager who desperately yearns to be loved and accepted not only by her peers, but especially by her mother, Donnelly gives a strong, emotionally rich performance. Her thinly veiled crush on her friend Colin (Casey Boland) is also thoroughly believable, and it is easy to sympathize with her in conflicts with her mother. Hand and White are also convincing as the overly eager Alice and Gabe. They both manage to communicate desperation and concern at the same time. Mohr has the most difficult role, as Nance, as the character starts out likable but gets less so as we learn more about her, and especially how she relates to her daughter. Mohr handles the role well, managing to find some sympathy. Boland is charming as Colin, Evie’s friend who is new in town but still hung up on his girlfriend from back home, and Stephen Peirick is good as Nance’s lonely but optimistic date, Tom.    The relationships here are key, and the players work together well, particularly in the emotionally charged scenes between Evie and Nance, between Alice, Gabe and Nance, and between Evie and Colin.

The strong cast is given support by the excellent, clever staging. This show is performed at The Chapel, which has a very flexible performance space. The way the show is set up has the action taking place in three performance areas on the main floor of the space, with the audience set up in chairs on three sides (including on the stage) surrounding the performers. This gives a level of depth to the staging that heightens the drama. The three story “threads’ are based in different areas of the performance space, with occasional overlap and rearranging. The set is cleverly designed by Kyra Bishop, with a fairly minimal approach that works very well for the tone of the show.  There’s also excellent lighting work by Nathan Schroeder that enhances the mood of the production.

There’s a lot to talk and think about in this show, and some of the issues are ones that can get very emotional. Anyone who has dealt with issues of weight and body image should find something to relate to here, especially. There are also some valuable questions raised about parenting, relationships and perfectionism.  It’s a thoroughly engaging drama, compellingly staged.  It’s the first time this play has been performed in St. Louis, and it’s a worthwhile debut.

Ann Marie Mohr, Michelle Hand, Eric Dean White Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Ann Marie Mohr, Michelle Hand, Eric Dean White
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

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