In True West and Fool for Love, playwright Sam Shepard is fixated on the darker side of relationships. Rival brothers Austin and Lee are driven to the brink of violence and madness over a screenwriting venture gone awry in True West, and on-and-off-again lovers Eddie and May can't seem to quit each other despite the lingering toxicity between the pair in Fool for Love. It is through these characters that Shepard reveals the volatile and destructive patterns that can emerge between people who share deep, complicated histories — as well as the absolute havoc they can ultimately wreak.
But embracing those intense dynamics is what makes staging Shepard's work so enjoyable, says Dana Resnick, a theater arts professor from Los Angeles who is guest directing True West for PURE Theatre.
"The fun of the play is the story between the two characters. Who's got the power? Who's got the ball, we like to say in rehearsal," Resnick says. "And how do they get that ball back when they lose it? And between the brothers, there's a whole history they share of sibling rivalry and also sibling love. We say that they might be ready to kill each other, but they're also ready to jump in front of a bus for the other person. And both are instinctual. So between the actors in rehearsal, it's like a game to watch them play with each other and toy with each other and find new ways to surprise each other."
True West will run concurrently with Fool for Love from Jan. 11 to Feb. 2 as part of PURE Theatre's new Past Contemporaries Series. Sharon Graci, artistic director and co-founder of PURE Theatre, will direct the latter production.
"Really the litmus test for Past Contemporaries is that at least one, if not both, of the plays — if there's two plays being produced — are a show that PURE would've produced had PURE been producing at that time," Graci says. "So both of these shows are from the early '80s, and if PURE had been performing in the early '80s, both of these plays are absolutely plays PURE would've produced. So that's one check on the box we were super excited about. ... [Sam Shepard] is such an iconic and important playwright, especially in the kind of modern American canon of theater. And with his passing, it only seems fitting that we honor him and his work."
Some theater critics consider True West and Fool for Love part of a quintet known as the Family Plays, and both Resnick and Graci see how the works intersect and complement each other.
"Just in the language and the relationships and the personalities of the characters, they're from the same world. And they have similar histories and similar desires. So I would say that really connects them," Resnick says. "Although the stories of the two plays are very different, you could imagine the characters from one having come across one another in their lives. They've been at the same road stops."
"And while they may not recognize each other personally or by name, they would certainly recognize the shared experience of one another," Graci adds.
PURE previously produced True West in fall 2004, and actors R.W. Smith and David Mandel will return to reprise their roles of Lee and Austin, respectively. The opportunity to arrange a repeat casting more than a decade later is "a rare treat," Graci says.
"It is such a privilege and delight to work with Smitty and David on these roles that have been living inside of them in their subconscious since the first time they did the play and to be able to take the wisdom of the years since then and then go deeper than they could have the first time," Resnick says. "And it's really beautiful to watch the characters come out of them in the process."
Shepard's works are often marked by an absurdism that veers into dark comedy, and True West and Fool for Love each have their own moments of humor. In True West, for example, Austin and Lee's conflict reaches such a breaking point that the brothers begin to experience severe identity crises that turn histrionic. The moment is shocking but also amusing.
"I call it a cycle of comedy, and what happens is when something gets more and more tragic, there's a turning point where it becomes absurd, and then you start laughing, and it becomes funny," Resnick says. "And when something is funny, and you keep laughing and laughing — like a clown slipping on a banana peel. Once, it's a chuckle. Twice, it's funny. Three times, you're laughing out loud. But by the 100th time he falls on that banana, it becomes sad again and then depressing and then tragic and then absurd. And the cycle begins again.
"So it is not switching back and forth but actually riding the waves of tragedy and comedy, of humor and pathos because one will lead into the next. And when we've just had enough of one, the other will pop back in. It's human nature. It's the humanity of Sam Shepard's writing."
And Shepard's ability to capture that cycle is what makes works like True West and Fool for Love so captivating.
"From a distance, you think, 'Oh, True West. Fool for Love. Sounds OK.' And then you get one page in, and you're hooked. Or, I should say, one minute in," Resnick says. "From the first breath of True West, you're leaning forward. There's a sense of danger and excitement and sensuality and humor throughout the play that just keeps you leaning forward."