Steppenwolf presents generational chat about True West

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JACQUELINE WILLIAMS, as the mom, returns home to chaos, after her sons have had much infighting at her home.

By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, MSJ

Steppenwolf Theatre is pleased to present a unique discussion celebrating the historic and contemporary importance of “True West” to Steppenwolf. For this one-night-only event, Steppenwolf artists involved in the 1982 production join a new generation of Steppenwolf artists from the upcoming 2019 revival for a lively conversation featuring ensemble members Randall Arney, Francis Guinan, Jon Michael Hill, Jeff Perry and Namir Smallwood, with ensemble members Glenn Davis and Caroline Neff moderating the discussion. The event will last 60 minutes.

“True West Through the Decades: A Multigenerational Reflection on Launching and Revisiting a Legendary Work” takes place on Monday, August 5,  at 7 p.m., in the Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.

Tickets are $40 and are available through Audience Services (1650 N. Halsted St.), 312-335-1650 and steppenwolf.org.

LEE PLAYED BY Namir Smallwood puts the fear of all things evil in his brother Austin, left, (played by Jon Michael Hill) in a scene from the iconic play “True West.” (Photos by Michael Brosilow)

In 1982, Steppenwolf exploded onto the American Theatre scene with its now legendary production of Sam Shepard’s “True West.” Decades later Steppenwolf is revisiting the play, with a production helmed by longtime ensemble member and former Artistic Director Randall Arney, featuring ensemble member Francis Guinan revisiting the role he played in 1982, and starring ensemble members Jon Michael Hill as Austin and Namir Smallwood as Lee—the two brothers.

On this momentous occasion, a multigenerational group of ensemble members gather for a one night live event, an intimate and frank reflection on legacy and ensemble, as they retrace the history, which brought “True West” to Steppenwolf audiences in 1982, and again now in 2019. 

“True West” is a great production with two brothers bumping heads due to sibling rivalry and jealousy. While watching Smallwood and Hill, I was curious as to just how this performance played out 37 years ago. There are major societal influences at play in 2019 that weren’t present then. But this rebirth was very well done.

I loved Smallwood’s character. He reminded me of my late, laid back cousin who didn’t seem to have a care in the world. And it wasn’t just Smallwood’s persona, but his swagger and elocution totally reminded me of my cousin. As Lee, Smallwood seemed to take one step at a time and indulged in life or whatever life brought his way with great abandon.

As Austin, Hill brought to the table responsibilities, a wife and family and a career. He’s creative and hardworking and doing just that when Lee saunters into their mother’s home in Arizona. The mother, played by veteran actress Jacqueline Williams, is on vacation in Alaska.

There are tense situations—almost of Cain and Abel proportions. Austin loses his chance to write a draft for an upcoming film, after Lee flatters or scares the producer into taking on his yet unwritten idea about men and horses in the desert. His conniving manipulation of the slick Hollywood producer Saul Kimmer, played by Guinan, is masterful. He then pressures Austin into typing the script out on a vintage typewriter. This situation brings the two brothers to harsh blows, amid lots of drinking, cursing and roughhousing that gets totally and violently out of hand.

While Austin is holding on for dear life under the menacing gaze and commands of Lee, he begins to question his existence and whether he should, also, throw caution to the wind and just go gallivanting off.

I was stunned by the surprise ending and wondered whether the original production left the two brothers in such a state of toxicity. The ending reminded me of that in another Steppenwolf production, “Pass Over,” which starred Hill in Chicago and later Smallwood in the New York production, which also had an explosive, shocking ending.

“True West” runs through August 25, and single tickets are $20-$96. Steppenwolf Theatre is located at 1650 N. Halsted St. For more information, visit steppenwolf.org.

Elaine Hegwood Bowen is the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago.” For book information visit email: editor91210@yahoo.com.

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