The approach that director Tyson Danner takes with the QC Theatre Workshop's True West frustrates me in that, with leading actors Jeremy Mahr and (Reader employee) Mike Schulz playing either Austin or Lee depending on the results of a flipped coin minutes before the metaphorical curtain rises, I want to see them in both roles. With the character assignments left to chance, however, it's possible to attend every performance of the play's run and not get an opportunity to see Schulz and Mahr ever swap characters. And in a way, that's too bad, as the performers were so remarkable in Friday's presentation that I imagine a switch would make a subsequent viewing all the more interesting.
Friday's coin flip led to Schulz portraying screenwriter Austin, a responsible man working on a screenplay while house-sitting for his mother (Susan Perrin-Sallak), who is on a trip to Alaska. He's joined (and often annoyed) by Jeremy Mahr's Lee, Austin's older, far less responsible, freewheeling, and freeloading brother. Given my knowledge of - and high regard for - playwright Sam Shepard's dark comedy and Schulz's and Mahr's acting sensibilities, this is how I would've cast them in True West. Therefore, I'd hoped the coin toss would've resulted in the opposite casting, but that was just a minor disappointment, as the actors are exceptional in these roles.
I found it fascinating to watch Schulz's uptight composure as Austin melt into drunken hysteria after Lee swoops in and sells a script idea to Austin's agent (Brent Tubbs' Saul, who has the stereotypical swagger of a man who has money to throw around - a man who actually has no natural swagger). Perhaps most impressive is watching Schulz's face flush with redness whenever his Austin is frustrated at Lee, proof of the depth to which Schulz is in touch with his character. Danner takes it even further, physically matching Austin's descent into madness with an increasing state of untidiness in the initially pristine home (one beautifully rendered for the production's 1980 time period by scenic designer Tyler Reinert), and in Schulz's appearance as he strips down to his undershirt and the height and dishevelment of his hair increases.
Mahr, whose consistency as an actor I greatly admire, adds enjoyable physical characteristics to his Lee, from a tic involving wiping his upper lip with his thumb to the manner in which he walks - or rather, saunters - with his belly leading the way. Mahr's Lee doesn't have to speak a word and his character (a sort of self-entitled hick) is clear not only in the way he walks, but in how he slams drawers and tosses beer can after beer can into the sink with complete disregard for how his actions affect those around him. When he does speak, Mahr accentuates this physical characterization with a country drawl as he talks of living alone in the desert, and when he commands his brother to lend him his car.
As the brothers collide - with Austin's months of screenwriting work scrapped by Saul in favor of Lee's minutes' worth of western-movie ideas (which Austin thinks are stupid and trite), and Austin, in a way, forced to write Lee's screenplay - the chemistry between Mahr and Schulz becomes even more apparent, with its back-and-forth of familiarity, camaraderie, and rivalry. There's an excitement present in watching them interact as chaos (and flying toast) ensues, and by the end of the QC Theatre Workshop's well-paced, never-a-dull-moment presentation of True West, there's no doubt about the impressive abilities of these two actors. Now if only I could see them in the opposite roles, which I'm sure would cement my admiration of their talents all the more.
True West runs at the QC Theatre Workshop (1730 Wilkes Avenue, Davenport) through June 1, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)650-2396 or visiting QCTheatreWorkshop.org.