True West is a play written by Sam Shepard, and it is currently running at Center Stage Conservatory, a small, intimate theatre located in the lower level studio of the Modesto City Center at 948 11th Street, or on the corner of J and 11th Street. True West will be running until the 28th of September, performances are on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. True West tells a story of brothers and role reversal. This production was in a very intimate small basement theater, as such the audience really felt the intensity between the two main actors, Chris Hayhurst as Austin and Joe Conn as Lee. This show’s first run was absolutely amazing, so I went the second night as well, and that time around there were a few problems in the overall amazing production.
The set, designed by Traci Sprague, looked like a small suburban house, and all the space this small theater offered was used up. As the play went on, the house got more and more messy. Small things changed, like plants that were once alive being replaced by dead ones, as well as big things, like the set having toasters all over the place. Between scenes, Hayhurst and Conn quickly changed these things, and it was entertaining to watch them make a mess of the set.
Props were prominent in this production, at the beginning we see Lee smoking and drinking beer while Austin wrote and drank coffee. Later on, there were the toasters which Austin used to make an absurd amount of toast, and he even used two toasters to hit around cans of beer which were littered all over the set. The props in this show helped show the character’s feelings, whenever Lee was angry, he’d yell and violently toss his empty beer in the trash can, whenever Austin needed to calm down because of his brother, he’d have a cigarette or a beer. In the latter half of the show, Austin seemingly loses his mind, and a bottle of whiskey becomes a constant companion.
The lighting and sounds, done by Forrest Sprague and Jeffrey Truong respectively, were fantastic the first night I went. For lights, on the first night there were no problems, transitions were quick, and for some with set changes the lights were bright enough to see the actors quickly making changes to the set which was entertaining to watch, but on the second night Sprague seemed off his game as the lights looked dimmed the whole way through, and that made it difficult to see the actors’ faces. One big thing was the ending, the fade to black is supposed to happen after Lee gets up after Austin thinks he’s murdered him, but on the second night, the lights faded before Lee got back up, so I had to clarify that Lee was not dead at the end of the show.
As for sounds, Truong did amazing. Night scenes were accompanied by the sounds of crickets and coyotes, which was very calming, as Austin even pointed out. These sounds did not once feel overpowering, the sounds merely calmed the tense atmosphere after intense arguments. The sounds did seem like they were more loud the second time around, but not enough to overpower the actors.
The acting was superb, Hayhurst and Conn were an amazing team, the tense moments were frightening, they bounced off of each other with perfect timing. They really did seem like brothers, their physical and verbal fights looked and felt real. In the second half of the show, the brothers switch places for a while; Austin is quick to attack, and Lee is constantly trying to get his brother to calm down so he can focus on writing. Hayhurst acted drunk, sounded drunk, and if one had walked in during that scene they'd think he was drunk. These actors showed they were seasoned, and these actors were very deserving of the standing ovations they received both nights.
The other characters in the show were Saul and Mom, played by Bryan Hurd and Linda Scheller, respectively. These characters served to move the plot forward, Saul offering Lee a chance to make a movie, and the mother helping bring Lee to his senses while Austin just seemingly went insane. The actors performed their small parts perfectly, and though they were small characters they still left a big impact on the audience. Saul, feeling insulted by Austin, yelling that his gut feelings have always been right was a moving end of the first act. The mother yelling that her son is turning into his father, that Austin sounded mad, and her exiting line, “I don’t recognize it (her house) anymore” were powerfully delivered.
In this seriocomic play about two brothers switching roles the direction of Traci Sprague left a powerful impact on me. Along with the funny moments came the tense ones, but they all blended together perfectly in one of the best shows I’ve seen.
I would love going to every performance of this production of True West; yes, it was that good.
Christopher (Chris) Hunter is an intern for The Escalon Times, The Oakdale Leader and The Riverbank News. He is currently attending college but will continue to contribute occasional articles, reviews and columns.