Curtain Call: Theater Barn goes True West in riveting performance

Theater Barn, Ridgefield: Having always been fascinated by “absent” characters, those that are pivotal to a play but are never seen on stage, and equally fascinated by the relationship of fathers and sons, in a most unlikely alliance, I thought about Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams as I watched Sam Shepard’s masterpiece “True West.” Currently on the boards at the Theater Barn in Ridgefield, two brothers rediscover home, parents, and sibling rivalry.

As younger brother Austin is house sitting in the home he grew up in while his mother travels to Alaska, his older brother Lee arrives unexpectedly. Lee keeps bringing up the issue of their father, who is never seen on stage. Austin can’t bear to hear his father’s name. The father is a destitute ne’er-do-well and a drunk. Austin has given money to his father who used it to move from one bar to another.

This made me think of O’Neill’s heart piercing autobiographical Long Day’s Journey Into Night which showed the love/hate relationship between father and sons. As for Tennessee Williams just about all of his plays demonstrated a hatefulness towards his father. He didn’t want a father character in his play The Glass Menagerie, even though the father was a crucial part of understanding the situation in the play. The father in Shepard’s play is also disliked by his youngest son.

Shepard, like O’Neill and Williams, was preoccupied with family. That really comes through in the Theater Barn’s current production. This is due in large part to director Erik Tonner who has perfected the pace of Shepard’s sometimes threatening, sometimes humorous black comedy.

Chris Luongo as Austin and Anthony Barresi as Lee are the two brothers. Austin graduated from an Ivy League school and is a screenwriter. Lee is a small-time criminal and a vagabond. Both brothers secretly wish they could lead the life of the other. Luongo’s character is like a slow starting burn until his fire finally flares up. His performance is real and true, just as Shepard would have wanted it. Barresi, on the other hand, explodes immediately onto the scene. His characterization is so brutally real that it is almost difficult to watch him. He leaves it all out there on the stage. Emotions are so high, audiences hold their collective breath. These two actors are simply terrific. They skillfully slip inside the skins of their characters. The bonus is that you get to witness Shepard’s genius because of them. Also delivering fine performances are Dan Forman and Stephanie Schwartz.

What also works exceedingly well in this production is Nick Kaye’s detailed kitchen set design complete with windows, refrigerator, stove, sink, and cabinets. It allows Joanne Gorenstein, the scenic painter, to work her magic with a scene visible through the kitchen window and other nice painterly touches. A kitchen table, a couple of chairs and this stationary set capture everything one would expect to find in a home located in the West. Since the mother loves plants and antiques, there are plenty of both on this Ridgefield stage, which stand out well thanks to the lighting design by Matt Pagliaro. Gina M. Tonner’s costume design is character perfect.

Overall, this two-character study emphasizes Shepard’s sense of duality. In a interview on Shepard’s website, Shepard said, “I wanted to write a play about double nature … what it feels like to be two-sided. It’s a real thing, double nature. I think we’re split in a much more devastating way than psychology can ever reveal.”

The youngest son in the play sizes it all up by saying “Now that’s a true story. True to life.” And so it is. See this production. It plays through June 23. Box office: 203-431-9850.

Joanne Greco Rochman is a founding member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: [email protected]