Sibling Rivalry Seeks “True West” at Tipping Point

By Daniel Skora

Ryan Carlson as Lee and James R. Kuhl as Austin

There are plenty of opposing forces at work in Sam Shepard’s classic 1980 drama/dark comedy “True West”, currently being presented at Tipping Point Theatre. The play is filled with contradictions: kindness vs. brutality; order vs. disarray; truth vs. dishonesty; real vs. imagined; and compassion vs. cruelty. Giving life to those contradictions, Shepard has given us Austin and Lee, two brothers who are as different as night and day.

Austin (Tipping Point Producing Artistic Director James R. Kuhl) has made his vacationing mother’s California home into a writer’s retreat. He’s left his family at home and is working on a screenplay that he’s confident can be sold to a Hollywood studio. But his solitude is interrupted by the arrival of his brother Lee (Ryan Carlson). The two have not seen each other in five years, Lee now apparently on hiatus from living in the desert while looking for his alcoholic father.

Andrew Papa and James R. Kuhl

One would be hard pressed to find two brothers with more differing personalities. Austin is a hard-working self-motivated individual who looks to earn an honest living using his intellect and creative skills. Lee is the proverbial bad seed, bullying his way through personal relationships and breaking into homes whenever he’s in need of cash to steal whatever’s not nailed down. He’s volatile and threatening, and the only time he exhibits sympathy and tenderness is when he reminisces about the pit bull that won him a great deal on money in illegal dog fighting.

Act one of this nearly two hour play is the most authentic. Tense and credible, it shows the emasculation of Austin by his sociopathic brother. It’s edge-of-your-seat theatre, never sure where the mind of the unstable and unpredictable Lee will go next. Act two of Shepard’s play has always seemed a bit contrived, and while the turnabout between the two brothers as they each take on some of the characteristics of the other makes for interesting theatre, it carries with it a loss of verisimilitude.

James R. Kuhl and Ryan Carlson

Lee is now the one with a story to tell and Austin has drunk his way into a state of retaliation. And if Lee’s story doesn’t exactly have the ring of truth, it’s got the backing of Saul Kimmer (Andrew Papa), the Hollywood producer who either recognizes a great story when he hears one or has been bullied and intimidated by Lee on the golf course. The beer-swilling Lee hardly seems like someone who could even hold a club properly let alone win a round of golf from someone with country-club sophistication. The bizarre reaction of the mother (Brenda Lane) to the behavior of her sons at the very end of the show also strains credibility. Be that as it may, “True West’s” second act contains one of theatre’s most memorable extended scenes, the deliberate and unforgiving trashing of a theatre’s stage.

James R. Kuhl, Ryan Carlson, and Brenda Lane as Mom

If you’ve never seen “True West”, a truly classic and electrifying piece of American theatre, this is a production you’ll want to see. If it’s been a while since you’ve seen the show, this is a great time to get reacquainted. Tipping Point features two marvelous performances from its leads. Carlson is at his bad-boy best with a scorched-earth performance most notably in act one. By necessity, Kuhl begins act one with a steady hand and comes into his own with a powerful performance in act two. Hillary Sea Bard makes her professional directing debut a memorable one for both her and for the audience.

Set design by Bartley H. Bauer is a 1980’s period kitchen fronted by the requisite open space needed for the sibling-induced carnage. Costuming is by Shelby Newport with lighting by Rachel Nardecchia, sound by Quintessa Gallinat, and Tracy L. Spada serving as stage manager. To help the brothers as they physically mix it up, Melissa Freilich serves as fight coordinator. Properties, and there are few that will survive from one performance to the next, are by Natalie LaCroix.

“True West” runs through April 23rd. Tickets are available online at or at the theatre’s box office, which is open Mon. through Fri. 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and 90 minutes prior to all performances, based on availability. Tipping Point Theatre is located at 361 E. Cady Street in Northville, telephone 1.248.347.0003.

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