True West at Torch Theater

John Skelley (left) and Peter Hansen play boozing and brawling brothers

John Skelley (left) and Peter Hansen play boozing and brawling brothers

The American West isn't what it used to be in Sam Shepard's 1980 play. The rugged California desert has been replaced with suburban subdivisions, the clean air loaded with smog, and the people neutered by the crushing needs of society. All this comes to a head over several days in a quiet suburb, when two brothers reconnect for the first time in five years and continue a longstanding battle soaked with fear, resentment, and endless cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Torch Theater follows up last winter's Glengarry Glen Ross with another piercing examination of a man's world, this time focusing on the intense rivalry between a pair of brothers. Austin (John Skelley) is the golden child, an Ivy League-educated writer about to close a deal on a major screenplay. He's decamped to his mother's house in the suburbs while she's in Alaska.

Enter Lee (Peter Christian Hansen), Austin's drifter/petty-criminal brother. Lee has his brother's number from the start, able to manipulate him at every turn and, in a bit of epic bravado, to convince Austin's producer (John Middleton, channeling pure Hollywood smarm) to produce his idea for a "true" Western.

From here, the battle is on. As the brothers consume cases of beer, they argue about their places in this brave new world. It's clear that both of them are broken, despite Austin's veneer of artistic normality and Lee's endless bragging about his desert-bound freedom and ability to make a life out of nothing. The sources are implied here, though both of them are haunted by the unseen presence of their father. When their mother (Linda Sue Anderson) arrives on the scene, we get more clues. She's passive and maybe a bit crazy, watching the carnage before her with disinterest and a bit of madness rather than any concern for her children.

Shepard has a lot on the table in True West, including the pains of the creative process (at one point, Lee takes a golf club to a typewriter; what writer in a tight spot hasn't fantasized about that?) and the effect the smog-bound landscape has on modern Americans' souls. All of that is of interest, but it is the brothers' relationship that makes the play sing.

It's aided by the terrific work from the lead actors. Hansen is on from the very first moments, layering on sleazy charm, even if it's only to annoy his brother. The character is completely self-assured in these opening scenes, manipulating every situation with ease. The change doesn't come until he gets in too deep and finds he needs his brother's skills to finish his story and seal the deal. Hansen's transformation is as smooth as his character. Lee's initial outsized emotions turn darker and darker as he gets lost in Austin's world and loses sight of his own.

Skelley has a tougher challenge. Austin is a bit dull at first, especially in contrast to his brother's outsized, extroverted personality. His main emotions are exasperation at having Lee reenter his life and annoyance that his brother may queer the deal he has spent months developing. That turns to anger when his brother seems to get the best of him at his own game. Austin doesn't come into his own—and Skelley doesn't find his bearings—until midway through, as Lee discovers that writing isn't as easy as it looks. With the characters on equal footing, the two actors are finally able to unleash the full power of their performances in the play's last third, as the Theater Garage stage becomes littered with crushed beer cans, stolen toasters, silverware, and the remnants of the poor typewriter.

The company, under the direction of the always sure-handed David Mann, slowly ramps up the energy, staying on track in the slower earlier scenes before unleashing the play's perfect storm of resentment, anger, and deep sense of loss—even if neither the well-educated writer nor the world-trained drifter can articulate what has gone away.