KPBS AIRDATE: JUNE 23, 1999
If you want a peek at the dark underbelly of our nation, you have two dramatic vantage points this week. Check out Sledgehammer Theatre or the Fritz, both fiercely exploding the American Dream and the American myth. The myth of the Wild West. And the myth of America the melting pot, the benevolent watchdog, the promoter of world peace.
Both plays, “True West” and “In the Heart of America,” are fierce and fiery in their themes and their language. Both productions are so gripping, so galvanizing, so outstandingly acted and directed, that, like some grisly roadside accident, you just can’t turn away. If you’re a serious theatergoer, you’re making a big mistake to miss these terrific offerings from San Diego’s two funkiest, most fearless, most consistently edgy, iconoclastic and provocative theater companies.
Sledgehammer, now 14 years old, is the grand-master of the local theater fringe. With “True West,” they’re not only revisiting a favorite playwright, Sam Shepard, whose dark vision is an excellent match for their own. But they’re also re-uniting two co-founders of the company, penetrating director Scott Feldsher and agile, irresistible actor Bruce McKenzie, a spectacular collaborative relationship sorely missed since both left town. Feldsher has added Jeffrey Jones to the mix, and together with a sensational design team, they create a stark and brutally beautiful magic.
The 1980 Shepard play, set just outside L.A., is a twisted update on Cain and Abel, a story of sibling rivalry almost too savage to watch. Austin, a Hollywood screenwriter, is working on a script at his mother’s house when his older brother Lee, a shiftless drifter and grifter, bursts in and proceeds to turn his life, as well as the comfortable little kitchen, upside down and inside out. Lee starts peddling his own “authentic” Western story, and manipulates his brother and a producer, so that ultimately the screenplay, the rights, the money, the triumph, everything is his, and Austin wants only to escape to the desert Lee crawled out of. Their perverse mutual envy is destructive and ultimately, violent. Shepard lays bare the quintessential American identity crisis, forcing realism into a deadly confrontation with artifice.
American identity is everything in Naomi Wallace’s view, and, like Shepard, this playwright is not afraid to kick sand in the face of a bully. In this case, “In the Heart of America,” the sand is on the floor of the Fritz Theater, and the bully is America the so-called Beautiful, with all its warts of bellicosity, bigotry and brutality. Part morality play, part love-and-war story, part anti-war, anti-racism polemic, the 1994 piece is rife with strong, rich language, barbaric acts, and restless, purgatorial ghosts. Despite its intriguing cross-cuts in time, place and reality, the play verges on the preachy. But it’s a wonderful introduction to a fascinating playwright, an expatriate who sees, from a distance, all the ugly scars on her native land.
Set in 1991, the play concerns a Palestinian-American woman whose brother has not returned from the Gulf War. In her search for the truth of his disappearance, she boldly confronts his Army-buddy and erstwhile lover in a shabby Kentucky motel, and is visited by the ghost of a My Lai massacre victim, as well as her victimizer, Lt. William Calley, the American officer who was responsible for that 1968 debacle which killed 500 defenseless Vietnamese women and children. Wallace paints on a huge canvas; in fact, she may be trying to accomplish too much. Her multicolored mural illustrates the horrors of war; the lust for weaponry; the demeaning and fomenting of young soldiers; racial and gender prejudice, homophobia, hyphenate identity-crises and more. Her dramatic structure is a bit too pat, too contrived. Each seminal or dastardly act has an exact counterpart in another part of the story. Too much is neatly explained, like the monstrous, homeless soul that inhabits Calley and the Gulf War lieutenant.
But Wallace has a voice, and a gift for dialogue. And director Bryan Bevell, with the Fritz’s best technical and design support to date, have given life, breath and fiery energy to the piece. The newcomer-cast is sensational, especially the men– buff Jared Aaker, wide-eyed Azfar Najmi and intense Jerry Urick, also wonderful in the Fritz’s recent “No Exit.” This play, like “True West,” isn’t a passive, palliative entertainment; they’re both ferocious and explosive theater experiences.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.