Sam Shepard's True West, which opens today at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage, isn't for the faint of heart, either for the audience or the actors.
"This is an intense psychological drama between two people that takes place in one setting," says David Mann, the director of Torch Theater Company's production of the play. "So right there you've got several challenges. How do you keep it compelling, though there isn't a tremendous amount of physical action? How do you manage the long passages between the brothers without it becoming a single-note play in which they're both angry the whole time? How do you handle the metaphorical, allegorical quality of the story while keeping it grounded so the audience can engage?"
For the director, tackling the play offered a chance to roll up his sleeves and explore a piece that he has known for years, but never studied closer. Along with the actors, led by Peter Hansen and John Skelley as the brothers, Mann examined all of the questions about staging the play.
"The way I've generally handled it is to let John and Peter go with their initial impulses, then we talk, I adjust, and we try again. We've done this much more for True West than any other play I've directed," Mann says.
In True West, Shepard explores the relationship of two estranged brothers who reconnect at their mother's house and play out old rivalries, all while trying to write a movie script. Mann and the actors worked to draw out and fill the characters.
"Eventually, I began to see where emotion could be enhanced or pulled back. I saw movement possibilities that resonated thematically, and I shaped the work of the actors to draw out Shepard's intent to the best of my ability. This is a drama that essentially seems to be happening within the mind of a single person, but it needs to appear to be happening in mom's kitchen," Mann says.
The cast also features John Middleton as a Hollywood agent and Linda Sue Anderson as the brothers' mother. "All four of them have been inventive, open, and very smart. Peter and John have of course had the lion's share of rehearsal time, and their willingness to mine this text for everything it can be has been phenomenal. In other productions, discussions in rehearsal can sometimes be aimless and irrelevant. But with these two guys, discussion has always made the scene better," says Mann.
Now that the actors have been through the wringer, it's time for the audience.
"Hopefully, they'll be eviscerated emotionally! The play is funny, as well as being violent and unnerving, but if we've done our work, the audience will love the brothers as much as they're shocked by them," he says.
True West runs through September 24.