The Southampton Cultural Center’s Showing of Sam Shephard’s True West
aline reynolds :: On Stage
Director Michael Disher’s rendition of Sam Shepard’s 1980 play True West prompted nervous laughter and unease on the part of a
predominantly elderly audience at the Southampton Cultural Center on the evening of Saturday, April 19th. “This is the first time I’ve
attempted to tackle True West,” says Disher, who claimed that the greatest challenge in directing this play was “finding two actors [for
the emotionally charged brothers Austin and Lee] who could depend upon one another. I was lucky to find two dynamite ones!” Joe
Pallister, who plays the role of the crude Lee, discussed the play’s complexity: “It is certainly a difficult play to act out ‘cause there are
so many different ways to interpret the script and there are threads that run through it.”
This modernist, post-naturalistic comedy features Austin’s and Lee’s dynamic series of conversations in their mother’s California home.
The challenge actors Joe Pallister and Kirk Gostkowski faced was to master the subtleties of both characters’ complex personalities.
They managed to do so with facility and vitality, transforming a potentially banal script into a dialogue full of life and momentum.
Gostkowski, who plays Austin, said chuckling, “This play is a monster, and is difficult to convey. You have to have an amazing
connection with the person playing the other role, and I think I have that connection with Joe.”
The most striking asset of Saturday evening’s performance was the consistently sound chemistry between the two brothers. While
Austin, a level-headed, conscientious screenwriter and Lee, a careless desert dweller, reunite at their mother’s southern California
home while she’s travelling in Alaska, the brothers share memories of their past and quarrel about their future. Despite the
overwhelming strife that pervades the kitchen set on stage, Gostkowski and Pallister manage to retain an inextricable brotherly love in
their characters. In particular, Gostkowski’s rendition of Austin’s familial devotion to his brother in Act I is heartfelt and genuine.
Throughout the first act, Gostkowski managed to evoke the simple-mindedness and good-natured, somewhat deadpan personality of
Austin, creating a fine contrast to the boisterous and cynical Lee. Gostkowski skillfully portrayed Austin’s initially apathetic demeanor
and his rapid shift to boyish curiosity when hearing about Lee’s adventures in the desert. He also got appropriately riled up when Lee
asks to borrow his car and when the brothers discuss Austin’s allegedly set screenwriting deal with the prominent L.A. movie producer
Saul Kimmer. Towards the end of each scene, Gostkowski made timely morose or angry facial expressions that added the appropriate
tension and suspense just before the lights dimmed and the next scene followed. Gostkowski’s fervent emotions towards his film project
and his brother appropriately foreshadowed the actions to follow in the play’s second act. And, finally, when Lee pitches his own film
topic to Austin, Gostkowski lashed out the ideal sardonic facial expression that seemed to say, “Are you joking”? His anger mounts
against the pretentious Lee, who shows off his pseudo storymaking skills to Kimmer. Pallister’s constantly shifting vocal range
throughout this scene amplified Lee’s uppity and offensively forward attitude towards Austin and Saul.
Throughout, Pallister as Lee evoked the charisma and reckless debauchery of his character without overacting. As the actor explained
after the show, “There’s a certain amount of humanity in Lee’s character–it’s too easy to go for the crude idiot.” Pallister successfully
avoided one of the biggest traps in acting: stereotyping. He also splendidly acted out Lee’s fury and bullying of Austin when the latter
offers him money, which he interprets as a condescending gesture of pity.
During intermission, the 1972 America Song “Horse with No Name” was suitably played, foreshadowing Austin’s obsessive fascination
with the desert in Act II. The latter character’s abrupt shift in personality is prompted by Lee’s announcement that Saul has dropped his
brother’s script to make room for his own. Austin’s terrified facial expression and physical shuddering is very well acted out by
Gostkowski during this scene. This is the juncture in the play in which the two brothers virtually switch roles: while getting steadily
worked up to the eventual point of insanity, Austin recklessly chugs down bourbon and beer—as his brother had done in Act I—talking
nonsense and denying his identity as a writer, while the proud Lee sits at Austin’s typewriter, attempting to toil away at his script. The
stark contrast between the two characters is strongly communicated by both Gostkowski and Pallister. Moreover, at the end of Act II,
scene 1, the menacing stare that is cast between the two brothers is hauntingly indicative of their inner sentiments of rivalry and
Mark Strecker, meanwhile, maintains good composure as the producer Saul Kimmer, who is attempting to mediate between the brothers
that are competing for his recognition. As Strecker commented after the performance, “My character is less of a character and more of
a plot device. Saul is like the chip that is being pulled between [Austin and Lee].” Saul’s calm demeanor forms a necessary
counteracting force to the irate Austin, whose facial reactions throughout Act II continue to be very telling. Gostkowski as Austin also
managed to crack jokes about his father losing his teeth while maintaining a serious facial expression, which provided the audience with
necessary comic relief to break the second act’s mounting tension. The actor also succeeded in shifting emotional gears from
explosiveness to nostalgia – and back to explosiveness—smoothly within the course of just one scene.
Vay David performed well as Austin’s and Lee’s ditsy, disengaged mother, who enters toward the end of Act II and shows a shocking
disregard of the near-deadly hostility between the brothers. Her typically modern matriarchal stance of apathy is skillfully acted out.
The fifth character of the play, the “old man,” Austin and Lee’s father, although never appearing on stage, has a strong influence over
the brothers. Not only is he alluded to several times throughout True West, but he seems to be the motor of much of the dialogue and
the source of contention between Austin and Lee. While Austin does not wish to forgive his father for his selfish debauchery, Lee has
taken after his father and wishes to back him up financially with the monetary rewards of his screenplay. Ultimately, both brothers have
a certain amount of the “old man” in them, in that, like their father, both feel the need at one point or another to escape the constraints
of modern life and relocate to the desert.
The play’s final scene was the only one that was the least bit disappointing. Austin’s strangling of his brother with his mother’s kitchen
phone chord was not convincing – it almost came across as a farce rather than an act of violence and perversion. Instead of feeling
horrified, I almost felt like I could burst out in laughter, which was clearly not Sam Shepherd’s intended reaction from the audience. This
scene was meant to be far from inane, but it resulted in that much more than in tragedy or horror. The actors could have perhaps
avoided this botch by having Austin’s self destruction culminate more gradually. As it was performed on Saturday evening, it felt as if
Austin transformed from a mild-mannered, benevolent human being to one full of wrath and on the verge of insanity a bit too quickly to
Nevertheless, at the closing of the play, I walked out of the venue feeling satisfied.
As for the fairly new theatrical venue at the Southampton Cultural Center, all members of the cast and crew agreed that it was a
pleasant, intimate space to work and perform in. Disher quoted Pallister as having said earlier in the day, “The seats feel more like part
of a living room,” especially since the stage setting is a kitchen.True West will be playing at the Southampton Cultural Center for
another weekend — from Friday evening, April 25th to Sunday, April 27th’s matinee show—after which the Hamptons Ballet Theater
Show will be playing The Three Sisters and the Magic Doll Shop (based on Leo Delibes’s Coppelia) on May 2nd at 7 p.m. and May 3-
4th at p.m. in this venue. For more information on upcoming cultural events at the center, visit the Southampton Cultural Center
website. To learn more about actor Kirk Gostkowski, visit his homepage at kirkgostkowski.com
Aline Reynolds is a magna cum laude 2007 graduate of Barnard College, with a double degree in comparative literature and music.
Shortly after graduation, she began working as a freelance arts and culture writer for Long Island periodicals such as Dan’s Papers and
Southampton Press. Since June 2007, she has been working in the international sales department at W.W. Norton publishing, where
she is responsible for mediating between Norton’s overseas representatives and the Norton headquarters in New York and
Pennsylvania. She also does freelance press release writing for Norton’s publicity department, and undertakes various other freelance
projects in the college and trade editorial departments on a regular basis. Aline can be reached at ar2198[at]columbia.edu.
Click Here for a link to the article on thehamptons.com
Kirk Gostkowski as Austin,left,is standing over brother Lee,
Joe Pallister. TOM KOCHIE
Written for thehamptons.com
The Southampton Cultural Center’s Showing of
Sam Shephard’s True West
By Aline Reynolds
April 23, 2008