REVIEW: Steppenwolf revisits its roots with a new generation in ‘True West’

By Jack Gardner

Steppenwolf Theatre Company is presenting a revival of “True West,” the play that launched the company from relative obscurity and onto the national stage in 1982. The play, which runs until Aug. 25, is being performed in the Downstairs Theatre.

Usually regarded as Sam Shepard’s masterpiece and his best known work, “True West” tells the story of brothers Austin (played by Jon Michael Hill), an Ivy League educated Hollywood screenwriter, and Lee (played by Namir Smallwood) a desert-dwelling drifter and burglar. The estranged siblings (roles which were originated at Steppenwolf by John Malkovich and Gary Sinise as Lee and Austin) meet unexpectedly at their mother’s home while she’s on vacation and a lifetime of jealousy, violence and resentment boil to the surface as the suburban bungalow becomes a battlefield.

This production justifies being revisited, as director Randall Arney and the newer, younger ensemble’s interpretation involves a change of race on the part of the brothers. This added dimension recontextualizes moments such as Austin’s warning that Lee will get “picked up” if he’s seen slinking around the neighborhood, or Saul the producer’s astonishment at Lee’s storytelling and golfing propensities. The addition of exploring race alongside the other themes of class and opportunity fits perfectly within this dark comedy/drama.

Ensemble members Namir Smallwood as Lee (left) Francis Guinan as Saul (center) and Jon Michael Hill as Austin (right) in Steppenwolf’s production of “True West” (Photo by Michael Brosilow).

Francis Guinan reprises his role as Saul Kimmer almost 40 years later in a reinterpreted version of his role. This time, instead of an ambitious up-and-coming producer, he portrays the sleazy Hollywood fat cat looking for the next project to exploit as a means of pushing slightly further ahead of his competition. Jacqueline Williams as the boys’ mother serves as a fantastic display of the neglect that has formed the brothers into the ravenous attention mongers that have laid siege to her home. Smallwood and Hill’s chemistry is the lifeblood of the show, as Lee begins the play by treading all over Austin’s personal boundaries, strong-arming and intimidating his more mild mannered brother until the abuse pushes Austin to become a whiskey-fueled nuisance who antagonizes his brother through taunts and games as opposed to brute strength.

The sound design and original score, courtesy of Richard Woodbury, cannot go without notice, as the ambience of crickets and coyotes in the distance draw closer to the brothers as the week drags on, goading them to the brink of insanity. Additionally, the music, which divides each scene, stays true to the modern-day western story, as the twangs of guitar strings and the hum of harmonica are infused with a hip hop beat, sometimes accompanied by the clacking of typewriter keys or the chorus of coyote howls.

Ensemble members Namir Smallwood as Lee (left) threatens Jon Michael Hill as Austin (right) with a golf club in Steppenwolf’s production of “True West” (Photo by Michael Brosilow).

The very understated set, designed by Todd Rosenthal, shares in the Steppenwolf’s tradition of having sets that appear to have been removed from a real home and then transplanted onto the stage. With details ranging from a gate I could swear occupied the front door area of my grandmother’s house to an indoor greenhouse that stores the mother’s collection of plants, Rosenthal succeeds in immersing the story via a very realistic and lived-in setting.

Steppenwolf’s progress shines as they master this revisitation of a favorite that exudes classic Chicagoan theatre. If you’re lamenting the fact that you can’t see the current production of “True West” on Broadway, don’t fret because the people who brought it to New York in the first place are offering the experience right here in the Windy City.

FYI: Tickets are $20-$96 at or at (312) 335-1650


Jack Gardner is a student at Purdue University studying English Literature, History and a Certificate in Acting. He joins Columnist Phil Potempa on-air as a contributor weekly on Potempa’s “Of Notoriety” radio show broadcast on WJOB 1230 AM. He can be reached at