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Center Stage

Coming of age with two faces

2/12/2014

Tallgrass Theater’s “True West,” by Sam Shepard, shows at Rex Mathis Auditorium, 1401 Vine St., West Des Moines, on Saturday, Feb. 15 at 7:30 p.m.

Tallgrass Theater’s “True West,” by Sam Shepard, shows at Rex Mathis Auditorium, 1401 Vine St., West Des Moines, on Saturday, Feb. 15 at 7:30 p.m.

“True West” may exist on a map, but Sam Shepard has somewhere scarier in mind. The 1980 play, often called Shepard’s masterpiece, reduces a Los Angeles, Calif., ranch house to the kind of wreckage he perceives across the American West. The place isn’t big enough for the two brothers boxed inside, snarling and snapping. Not for nothing does the script mention dogfights. The story does offer laughs, lots in fact, but these flare up strangely, heightening the tension. Throughout, Shepard thrashes comfortable notions of freedom, family and his own dramatic art.

Yet I doubt he ever imagined the work would signal a coming-of-age for Des Moines-area theater.

Tallgrass calls this its first “Dream Project,” in which players mount some production special to them. For Michael Davenport, after roughly 40 local shows, this meant taking on a challenge he’d discovered years ago on Broadway — where it featured the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Davenport wanted to do “True West” as both brothers, swapping off with another actor, one night playing the outlaw Lee and the next the milquetoast Austin (that’s how the characters start out, at least). All he needed was a troupe as crazy as he was. Crazy, or visionary: With Shawn Wilson as the second brother, the show proves nothing less than a breakthrough and a new benchmark in this town.

Neither Davenport nor Wilson neglect any of the actor’s instruments — not even the way they ruff their beards. A comb might turn up in Austin’s ditty bag, but never in Lee’s. Myself, I caught the two versions back to back, and while I was often impressed by some difference about Austin’s loaded glance or Lee’s belly rub, what struck me most was the alternation in the voices. Davenport’s Lee has the lisp of a longtime drunk, almost mentally disabled, yet this seeming weakness lends menace: The man’s not right in the head. Wilson, by contrast, growls like a bear out of the Georgia woods, and this, too, generates emotion you wouldn’t expect — a tenderness.

When Davenport’s Lee puts a hand on the Hollywood bigwig Saul — Joe Smith, with spot-on superficial warmth — it at once triggers a flinch. When Wilson touches the visitor, at first Saul doesn’t notice. Other changes take place when the mother arrives, her timing shifts, though the script generally limits Mary Bicker to a comic foil amid paroxysms of violence.

The tics in each man’s Lee, what’s more, don’t prevent them from working up two distinct Austins. Davenport’s manic outlaw remarkably transforms into the more sedate take on the housebound. I daresay this city’s stages have never offered such a range of satisfactions paired with such attention to detail. Even the set’s lone door contributes to the conflict: Neither brother can escape without getting past the other. The multiple artistic approaches available during the late lamented Fringe Festival offered something like the same pleasure, but few of those pieces whipped up such gales of emotion. One wishes all the Des Moines metro could fall into such a dream. CV

John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.

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