True West: History

Feb 09, 2006

“This is the first one of my plays I’ve been able to sit through night after night and not have my stomach ball up in embarrassment. I worked longer on this play than any other play. I rewrote it thirteen times. True West is the first play I’ve ever lived up to.”
Written in 1980 and winner of the Village Voice Obie Award, True West premiered at Magic Theatre in San Francisco, where Shepard was Playwright in Residence. Directed by Shepard’s good friend Robert Woodruff, the play was extremely well received by critics, and both Shepard and Woodruff were pleased with the production.
A Rocky Beginning
While Shepard was filming Raggedy Man in Texas, Woodruff took the production to Public Theatre, an established Off Broadway Theatre in New York City. Though Shepard and Woodruff had always chosen not to use Hollywood actors in their productions, Public’s Artistic Director, Joseph Papp, insisted that big name actors fill the roles.
Woodruff refused the request, but Papp insisted and eventually won out, casting Peter Boyle and Tommy Lee Jones. Shortly thereafter, Woodruff left the production.
Disowning the Production
Because of Shepard’s filming schedule, there wasn’t a lot he could do to help Woodruff. And although he’d never seen the production, it was enough that Woodruff was unhappy with the casting and pressure he was put under. Shepard phoned the editor of New York’s Village Voice, and said, “I want to repudiate the production of True West.”
Papp’s production of True West received terrible reviews. Critics said the two main actors were too similar in type and temperament.
From that point forward Woodruff, who had directed the premieres of all of Shepard’s productions at Magic Theatre, never directed a Shepard play again. Shepard, trusting only himself, took over the task.
A Second Chance
“Seeing the play in revival, one realizes that it was the production of the play that was originally at fault. The new version – using the same script – is an exhilarating confluence of writing, acting and staging.” – Mel Gussow, New York Times, 1982
In 1982, Steppenwolf Theatre, based out of Chicago, remounted True West. When it got favourable reviews, an Off-Broadway producer brought the production to New York City. Starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise (who also directed the production), the play got rave reviews and earned both actors an Obie Award. The play was later filmed and ran on PBS’s American Playhouse.
 Shaking Things Up
While True West is now produced around the world, more so than any other Shepard play, the most widely publicized revival was in 2000 at Broadway’s Circle in the Square Theatre, starring John C. Reilly and Phillip Seymour Hoffman
The opening was postponed when, several weeks into rehearsal, director Mathew Warchus decided that if the brothers in True West represent the two sides of one person, then the actors should be able to play both characters. That meant that every third night Hoffman and Reilly would switch roles. (A coin toss determined who would play what role on Opening Night.)
The show garnered a huge amount of publicity. Both actors earned Tony Award nominations for Best Actor, while the production received the Tony Award nomination for Best Play.
Written by Nicole Moeller