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REVIEW: Pittsburgh Public Theater toasts tensions in its strong 'True West'

| Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Actors Ken Barnett, left, and David Mogentale star in Pittsburgh Public Theater's production of 'True West' at the O'Reilly Theater.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Ken Barnett, left, and David Mogentale star in Pittsburgh Publis Theater's production of 'True West' at the O'Reilly Theater. Sunday, November 3, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Ken Barnett, left, and David Mogentale star in Pittsburgh Public Theater's production of 'True West' at the O'Reilly Theater. Sunday, November 3, 2013.

Brothers. Booze. Buttered toast.

All three play a large part in Sam Shepard's “True West,” the latest in Pittsburgh Public Theater's Masterpiece Season.

This volatile drama, directed by Pamela Berlin, builds to a crashing climax, dragging the audience along the way. Here, the standard American dream of success — house, family, career — is challenged by a less-civilized dream of a frontiersman who can make it anywhere, even in the desert.

The two brothers meet for the first time in five years in mom's suburban, California house. It's the late 1970s, a world we recognize from the seamless linoleum floor, the Harvest Gold appliances, the oversized wooden fork and spoon over the stove.

Preppy Austin (played to priggy perfection by Ken Barnett) is an Ivy League-educated screenwriter, house sitting while mom's away. Older brother Lee (David Mogentale, exuding menacing aggression) shows up unexpectedly, sipping a can of beer.

Ten years apart in age, poles apart by temperament and lifestyle, they couldn't look more different. Michael Krass nailed the costumes here. Austin is pressed and buttoned up. Lee, a petty thief, self-reliant and lawless, is the kind of man you'd cross the street to avoid. His suit pants were tailored for someone of another build. His bare feet slide in and out of a scuffed and worn pair of dress shoes. A gray raincoat is smudged with grime.

Sibling rivalry quickly joins the reunion with a mix of jealousy and grudging admiration.

But the relationship hits a downward spiral when Lee convinces Austin's producer (Dan Shor, an excellent choice as a Hollywood hustler) to drop Austin's script and invest in Lee's “true” western story.

In his tale, Lee describes a man chasing another across the desert, each afraid: “The one who is chasing doesn't know where the other is taking him. And the one who's being chased doesn't know where he's going.”

It's a terrible thought we keep in mind as Austin begins drinking and the brothers switch personas: Who's chasing? Who's leading?

Lee concentrates on the typewriter — first banging with a two-finger approach, then pounding in frustration with a golf club. Austin becomes the vagabond thief, breaking into houses. He lines the kitchen counter with bright, shiny toasters. Austin loads each and, as the scene continues, the toasted bread pops up at random, sending out a heady aroma.

“I love the smell of toast,” says Austin, likening it to salvation. “It makes me feel like anything is possible.”

Yes, anything — including escalating violence, cruel intimidation and pent-up anger let loose.

Michael Schweikardt's set brilliantly details the era in which the play is set. The look is enhanced by John Lasiter's lighting through the back windows — from early-morning glow, bright daylight and midnight blue behind the mountains.

As sound designer, Zach Moore's cricket symphony and coyote cries give added dimension to the rising tension between the characters.

There's no credit for scent design, but few will leave the theater without a craving for toast — and a feeling of relief.

Sally Quinn is deputy managing editor for features for Trib Total Media. She can be reach at 412-320-7885 or squinn@tribweb.com.

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