Patrick Dodd and Joel Butler in the Sonder House Productions presentation of Sam Shepard's True West. Photo by Bold Rezolution Studio.
Patrick Dodd and Joel Butler in the Sonder House Productions presentation of Sam Shepard's True West. Photo by Bold Rezolution Studio.

It is easy to see why Sam Shepard’s True West is the darling of young theatre companies and used extensively in theatre classrooms. And while it may provide a workout for its actors, it takes greater skill in ensuring this story of sibling rivalry gone awry has something for its audience too.

In the Sonder House Productions presentation currently on stage at The Cultch’s Vancity Culture Lab, it is only intermittently successful on both counts.

House-sitting for his mom while she is in Alaska, son Austin has escaped his wife and family to work on his first screenplay. Visited by his petty criminal brother Lee, the  brothers’ long-standing animosity and jealousy soon boils over.

Through what Austin sees as a con, Lee manages to convince a movie producer that his idea for a “true-to-life Western” has merit over Austin’s story.  With Austin believing Lee has tricked the producer into backing his story, Lee is forced to try to write his own screenplay without his brother’s assistance, while Austin takes up Lee’s world of petty theft.

It is at this point, with the brothers essentially switching lives, where True West really takes off. Describing his play as a battle between the two sides in all of us, it is when the brothers begin to walk in each other’s shoes that this idea finally comes into full view for the audience.

To get there though takes an entire first act, and even in its more robust second this production feels somewhat restrained. Under Kenton Klassen’s direction, Shepard’s dark humour shines, but the integral violence lacks a certain ferociousness.

That isn’t to say Joel Butler (Austin) and Patrick Dodd (Lee) don’t provide some glimpses of honesty in their performances, but the heat of the California night outside never quite reaches the necessary boiling point inside. This is no home destroyed, both figuratively and metaphorically.

And let’s be honest, while the constraints of the performance space would dictate no open flames, when Shepard calls for a small fire in which Lee will eventually feed pages from his script, you know there is something missing.

I have always been of the opinion that the appearance of Hollywood producer and mother in Shepard’s script as unnecessary distractions. And while Anthony Santiago and Lynne Karey-McKenna do their best with what they are given in this production, my opinion has not changed.

Director Klassen does provide some interesting staging, designed to emphasize the brother’s love/hate relationship. His initial decision to separate the two brothers in the small kitchen/dining area was promising, as were the moments Lee began to circle his brother like prey. The penultimate fight scene on the floor of the kitchen, however, suffered somewhat from poor sightlines.

Playing among the incessant crickets and increasing frequency of a coyote’s bark (Shepard insists in his script this is not the howl of the Hollywood stereotype) is musician, Ben Brandes. Playing at the top of the show and through transitions, it is a surprising and pleasant addition.

Sandy Peters does her best to fulfill Shepard’s detailed instructions on the set design within the space, including the oddly called for green synthetic grass in the kitchen’s alcove.

While a solid first production for this new indie Vancouver theatre company, this True West was just shy of its required 212 degrees.

True West by Sam Shepard. Directed by Kenton Klassen. A Sonder House Production on stage at the Vancity Culture Lab at The Cultch (1895 Venables St, Vancouver) until May 19. Visit sonderhouseproductions.org for tickets and information.