This weekend, PURE Theatre staked a claim in the West, both dramatically and geographically. The company did so first by way of its double-hitter line up of True West and Fool for Love, the beefy, biting works by the recently departed Sam Shepard that offer a barbed and vexing view on love and family, cowboy-style.
Billed as the Shep Rep, the paired productions alternate performances on different days during the run, as part of PURE’s Past Contemporaries Series. Shepard’s 2017 death has spurred numerous revivals of these early 1980s works, including a current Broadway take on True West by Roundabout Theatre Company starring Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano, now in previews.
PURE last presented True West in 2004 as part of its second season, and this production features the same lead actors, David Mandel and R.W. Smith, who were among the first comprising the company’s core ensemble. The production imports new directorial energy, too, by way of Dana Resnick, a Los Angeles-based theater arts director. All takes place on Richard Heffner’s modest kitchen set, which is swapped out for a motel room for Fool for Love, and both shows share a whitewashed wood backdrop, flanked by a succession of large burlap panels that serve as wings.
No doubt there was charge in that earlier production, by dint of PURE’s fresh and grand ambition as an emerging company. However, rest assured, there’s still ample fire in the belly. In take-no-prisoners performances, the perfectly-matched Mandel and Smith demonstrate to nail-biting end the fine line between brotherly intimacy and blood sport, and the current production ably (and fittingly) avails of the two actors’ years-long stage relationship to create a taut, unnerving dance of power and mistrust that rivets.
As an accomplished screenwriter named Austin, who is housesitting for his mother, Mandel subtly, nimbly ducks from and squirms under the menacing powerhouse that is Smith’s unforgettable Lee. A petty criminal who is all swagger and spitfire, Lee has landed at the house as well. When a producer comes calling about a project, Lee brashly grabs the bull that is Austin’s career by the horns, shamelessly beating it to submission. As the brothers banter, bicker, and come to blows, True West savagely kicks around the meaning of authenticity, a slippery notion if ever there was one, particularly when wrestled between a Hollywood dream weaver and small time crook.
Relationships are equally dicey in Fool for Love, which is directed by PURE’s Sharon Graci. The work again pits intimates against one another, this time by way of a forbidden love-hate folie a deux between a cowboy, Eddie (Malcolm Madera), and his tormented one-and-only, May (Camille Lowman). As with the ill-wishing siblings in True West, familiarity has bred contempt between the two, this time played out through loaded swipes and whispered pleas, heated accusations and longing protestations, which together keep the tension crackling throughout the cheap motel room.
In the midst of this pummel, an apparition known as The Old Man (Randy Neale) annotates the couple’s anguished back-and-forth, a ringside commentator who we come to find out has considerable skin in the game. When the unsuspecting Martin (Darryl LaPlante) arrives for a date with May, the stakes rise more perilously still, and the poor sod is served a mighty unsavory earful of TMI. The tortured three in Sartre’s No Exit have nothing on this swilling, lassoing, screeching rogue’s gallery of ranch hands and ravaged souls.
On that emotional maelstrom: The production cranks it up to 11 at the get go, and a slower build might have allowed me to more fully engage with the couple, and more palpably get why they were such doggone fools for love. Even so, there is plenty of magnetism in Mandera’s tall, self-assured drink of an Eddie, and plaintive appeal in Lowman’s perennially conflicted May. There is also effective emotional bass by way of the ruminative mien of Neale’s The Old Man, as well as LaPlante’s ever-agreeable Martin.
And about the geo-specific: The twofer launched the company in its new home on the west side of the peninsula, where it will now serve as the anchor tenant of the spiffy new Cannon Street Arts Center. Formerly the Zion Olivet church, the cultural hub represents a partnership between the City of Charleston and developer Patterson Smith to provide leasable space for performances, exhibits, readings, and more. With its mid-century Mondrianesque stained glass and inspired details like a chandelier crafted by artist Fletcher Williams III, it’s a stone-cold stunner that at the same time represents a local commitment to the arts.
In that stylish sanctuary, now equipped with a bona fide stage and proper audience risers, there was particular poignancy in PURE’s revisiting True West. Since the company’s earlier go at the show, PURE has ricocheted from venue to venue as the need repeatedly presented itself. Knowing that these fine, indefatigable theater makers stuck it out, and have now settled into this literally blessed space, bodes well for our city’s cultural scene. Last weekend, as brothers and lovers clashed in the night, my heart swelled.