Sam Shepard receives only about five minutes of screen time in the recent movie "August: Osage County," but his impact as a playwright over the last half-century has been vastly more significant.
Shepard has the distinction of winning the Pulitzer Prize (for "Buried Child") and writing arguably the worst play ever mounted by South Coast Repertory ("La Turista"). His finest and most accessible work, however, is "True West," now on stage in a dynamic production at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.
This is sibling rivalry taken to a whole new level. Brothers Austin, a mild, bookish screenwriter, and Lee, a hulking and intimidating fellow living outside the law, find themselves sharing their mother's modest home on the edge of the Mojave Desert while she is away. When each attempts to excel at the other's specialty, the excrement hits the fan and the house is thoroughly trashed.
Michael Serna, who also directed, plays Austin, whose discomfort over his brother's visit is palpable. Serna chafes furiously at being forced to share valuable time he's reserved for his manager and producer with the boorish Lee, who talks the visitor into a golf game segueing into a potential script deal.
The huge, stage-dominating role of Lee is pounced upon by Peter Hilton, an immensely powerful actor whose physical presence alone is threatening. Hilton is perfect for this character with his booming voice and swaggering manner, altered on occasion to that of an accommodating sibling just to throw Austin off guard.
Think Neil Simon had an odd couple? These two blow Oscar and Felix off the charts. It's almost painful to watch Lee attempting to write a screenplay on an ancient manual typewriter (this is the 1980s, incidentally), which he ends up dismembering with a golf club. And Austin's plans to chuck it all and follow Lee into the desert are, at the least, discomforting.
Austin does prove himself as larcenous as his brother in one sequence where he goes out to steal a toaster and brings home a dozen of them. Lee cracks open one can of beer after another, and the brothers wind up almost knee-deep in the empties.
This isn't, however, a two-character play. Jeff Bickel has some nice, real-world moments as Austin's agent, usurped by Lee. And Ilona Honeyman nearly conveys the required stunned shock at the sight of what's left of her kitchen, but falls a bit short of complete effectiveness.
Director-actor Serna also designed the immaculate (at the outset) kitchen setting, which undergoes a traumatic transition. Ryan Linhardt's subtle lighting effects also suit the production quite well.
South Coast Repertory introduced Shepard's "True West" to local audiences in 1981 with Ed Harris and John Ashton as the battling brothers. Thirty-three years later, it's still a vital, arresting experience with little downsizing evident in this superior production at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.
TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.
If You Go
What: "True West"
Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through April 27
Cost: $16 to $20
Information: (949) 650-5269 or http://www.costamesaplayhouse.com