Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

True West
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
by John Olson

Also see John's review of Come from Away


Jon Michael Hill and Namir Smallwood
Photo by Michael Brosilow
The summer of 2009 is a year of 50th anniversaries: Stonewall in June, the moon landing in July, and the 50th anniversary of Woodstock this month. Steppenwolf's original production of Sam Shepard's True West was only 37 years ago, in 1982, but the company's revival of it this summer seems as much of a milestone as those aforementioned events. It wasn't their first big hit—that was Balm in Gilead staged in 1980—but it was their first production to transfer to New York and a landmark moment in the company's development of a national reputation. Since then, Chicago storefront theater artists have dreamed of creating the next Steppenwolf, while theatergoers and critics dream of discovering the next one.

This new Steppenwolf True West pays homage to the original even as it celebrates the present and looks to the future. The current production team includes two ensemble members from the original: Francis Guinan, reprising his role as film producer Saul Kimmer; and Randall Arney, who succeeded Guinan in that role and directs this new production. The production offers something more exciting than nostalgia, though, with the casting of ensemble member Jon Michael Hill as Austin and rising star Namir Smallwood as Austin's erratic, criminal brother Lee (the role originally played at Steppenwolf by John Malkovich).

Hill made an auspicious Steppenwolf and Chicago professional debut in 2006 with his role in Bruce Norris's The Unmentionables, a performance this reviewer caught and described as "an impressive and dryly comic Chicago theater debut." Hill was just a senior at the University of Illinois at the time. He was named to the ensemble the following year and he has fulfilled the promise of being part of the new generation at Steppenwolf. He's built a substantial career in TV as well as making frequent returns to Steppenwolf. This role of the clean-cut brother is possibly the best showcase he's had yet.

Aspiring screenwriter Austin is initially controlled and disciplined, if a little tense. He's housesitting at the Los Angeles home of their mother while he works on selling a screenplay to film studio exec Saul Kimmer. He seems to have sold the script when his brother Lee, a petty thief, shows up unexpectedly at the home and crashes the meeting with Kimmer. Lee charms Kimmer and, fancying himself a potential screenwriter, coerces Austin into typing up Lee's ideas as a screenplay, which Lee proceeds to sell to Kimmer over a game of golf, shelving Austin's script.

Hill does a masterful job of creating a complete breakdown of civility in Austin, a transformation much more pronounced than Lee's ascent into responsibility. Lee still seems to view this writing gig as just another scam, which is apparently Shepard's point in this dark comedy skewering Hollywood. Namir Smallwood, a Steppenwolf ensemble member who's had some great roles with the company, plays Lee with a charm that is threatening enough but not terrifying. The chemistry between the two actors is electrifying and the fight choreography by Ned Mochel is spectacular.

Smallwood's Lee has a bit of an urban African American accent, and for those concerned about literalness, it is noted that Lee and Austin's mother is played (quite drolly) by African-American actress Jacqueline Williams. One might conclude the characters have been racially reconceived from the white family as the piece was originally cast, but that's not the case. The main point of the casting here is simply to let us see these two fabulously talented young actors play these two meaty roles. If this is the first time African-American actors have been given a chance to join the ranks of the prestigious British and American actors who have played Austin and Lee, that's a historical milestone as well.

True West, through August 25, 2019, at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago IL. For more information and tickets, visit www.steppenwolf.org or call 312-335-1650.


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