There's a pivotal scene in True West, Sam Shepard's Pulitzer-nominated 1980 play about the turbulent relationship between two brothers, when the eldest, Lee, is dictating a screenplay to Austin, his younger sibling. He describes a Western-style vignette in which two men on horseback "take off after each other straight into an endless black prairie" just as the sun is setting.
"And the one who's chasin' doesn't know where the other one is taking him," Lee says. "And the one who's being chased doesn't know where he's going."
For Brooke Wood, a longtime admirer of Shepard's work, these lines came as "kind of an a-ha thing" when she began directing a new production of True West at Lake City Playhouse in Coeur d'Alene. It was a metaphor she was keen to stress to Ricky St. Martin, the actor playing Lee.
"I was like, 'This is your guys' relationship. And he doesn't even realize that he's writing a story about his own struggles.' That was one of those layers that [Shepard] puts in there where you're like, 'Are you freaking kidding me? Did he just literally say that? That's so awesome.'"
Opposite St. Martin in this production is Kyle Ross, who plays Austin, the more stable and successful of the two. Yet much of the tension in True West stems from the fact that Austin's stability and success are threatened as the more dominant, impulsive Lee muscles in on his line of work as a screenwriter.
"They both have beautiful takes on each character. They came with some preconceived ideas, and I try really hard to allow that organic-ness that the actor brings," Wood says. "Ricky plays Lee a little more aggressively, and he has these beautiful ebbs and tides. The way he delivers a line, I wouldn't have thought that it could be dark and a bit funny."
Ross, by contrast, is "very tailored" and "put together" until Lee's threats and interruptions bring him to the breaking point.
"When he has his flip," she says, "you feel it so profoundly. And Kyle has these lovely nuances in his voice, I think because he's musically trained, so he can take it down to this small, whispering level and it's almost musical. He's put his own spin on some of the flow of the dialogue."
Although the play fixes its focus firmly on Lee and Austin, it calls for a cast of four. The other two characters are Saul, the Hollywood producer who Lee attempts to charm away from Austin, and the men's mother, for whom they're housesitting. The mother only appears in the play's final scene, which is why Wood says it's easy to overlook her significance at first.
"The mother blows my mind in how she's written," Wood says. "She gives weight to how screwed up these gentlemen are. Mom is definitely the anchor to their sibling rivalry. And it makes you start to wonder, is that why dad left? And then it builds this beautiful backstory so that someone who's watching it could start the show from the end and work backwards."
The mother is played by Kay Poland. David Sharon is playing Saul. Wood says that Sharon's involvement in True West is a perfect example of the role that a volunteer-driven theater like Lake City Playhouse fills in the community.
"He has not been on stage since high school. And he just decided that because his kids do this, he can't ask them to be fearless if he doesn't make these decisions. He came out and killed his audition. It makes me happy as someone who's involved with the Playhouse intimately, just to watch even adults grow."
That also speaks to the theater's decision to include Shepard's play in its current schedule.
"We're trying really hard to become something where a couple times a year we'll have shows that families can come to together," she says. "But we also work really hard at providing a place for actors who aren't musical theater majors or who really want to do some straight plays, stuff that's a little bit grittier and has more depth to it. True West definitely provided that. I guarantee people have seen Kyle Ross onstage, but I promise them they've never seen him in a role like this."
Along with providing actors the opportunity to break type or return to the stage after an extended absence, Wood says there's also an audience-oriented motive for Lake City Playhouse to stage a contemporary classic like True West.
"It's theater that people need to see because it has beautiful writing in it, and it utilizes actors in a way that people don't always get a chance to see. And the actors in this show have far surpassed anything I had in mind. As an audience member you can feel it from the moment you walk in." ♦
True West • March 15-31; Thu-Sat at 7:30 pm, Sun at 2 pm • $23 • Lake City Playhouse • 1320 E. Garden Ave., Coeur d'Alene • lakecityplayhouse.org • 208-676-7529