THEATER REVIEW: “True West” and “Fool For Love” at Cygnet

Playwright Sam Shepard specializes in characters who are broken in some way: beaten down by society, family or circumstance and trying to avoid falling off that cliff. Others are just losers – thieves, hustlers, con artists or actual criminals.

Two of his early plays – “True West” and “Fool For Love” – receive outstanding productions from director Sean Murray, a fine quintet of actors and a terrific creative staff through Nov. 2 at Cygnet Theatre.

Cygnet has done repertory productions before: Alan Ayckbourn’s “The Norman Conquests” trilogy in 2010 and the combination of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” and Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties” last year. This is the first time for two plays by an American playwright.

Both productions in this “ShepRep” share artistic staff: Sean Murray directs and designed the sets; Conor Mulligan did the lighting design, Matt Lescault-Wood the sound design. Jessica John Gercke designed the ’80s-era costumes and Peter Herman the wigs and makeup. All are top-notch.

“True West” is a black comedy about two brothers for whom familiarity has always bred contempt. Ivy-League educated Austin (Francis Gercke) is a soft-spoken screenwriter with a family currently housesitting for his mom and trying to finish his latest effort. Lee (Manny Fernandes) is a beer-swilling petty thief and general ne’er-do-well, generally on the move. The brothers have been estranged for five years. Lee walks in (much to Austin’s surprise) with the intention of checking out mom’s neighborhood for theft possibilities.

Fireworks start when Lee returns from his latest heist (a TV set) while Austin is talking to movie producer Saul Kimmer (Antonio TJ Johnson). Never one to stand on ceremony (or bother with manners), Lee bulldozes right in and monopolizes the conversation, chitchatting his way into a golf date with Saul and suggesting that he has a story that would make a fine movie.

But who will write the story?

As usual with Shepard, things get weirder, and the second act has threats, begging, hard feelings and actual violence as the writing process is reduced to recriminations, name-calling and other unfriendly acts ... and then Mom (Jill Drexler) returns from her Alaska cruise to find the kitchen a mess and the brothers at each other’s throats. She lightens the mood for a moment as she takes one look, drops her suitcases and leaves the boys to their craziness.

Gercke’s Austin is nervous, fussy and anxious in the presence of his older, less predictable and more violence-prone brother. Fernandes’s Lou is just scary enough in casual mode to be terrifying when he ratchets up the menace quotient. The two are excellent throughout and especially as they square off in the final intellectual and physical pas de deux.

Shepard’s plays often deal with extremes, and “Fool For Love” is about that amatory extreme – obsession– along with belonging and connection, something most Shepard characters lack.

Set in a seedy desert motel, where the “No” in the “No Vacancy” sign blinks on and off (perhaps tellingly), May (Carla Harting) is trying to get away from her obsession with Gercke’s rough-and-tumble cowboy Eddie. First she accuses him of two-timing her, then drops the information that she’s waiting for a date.

Gercke and Harting shine in this tense one-act piece, which offers respite only in the characters of Antonio TJ Johnson’s Old Man (who turns out to be the father of both protagonists) and in Manny Fernandes’ tentative turn as Carla’s unsuspecting date Martin. Fernandes’ does a tour de force turn from bully Lee to the polite, almost frightened Martin.

Shepard is a take-no-prisoners playwright who doesn’t cotton to the happy-ending rule. No sunny comedies or thoughtful pieces designed to make you think here. They’re in-your-face portrayals of some of the worst of human characteristics. But Cygnet has done an excellent job of staging them.

The details

“True West” and “Fool For Love” play alternately through November 2, 2014 at Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. in Old Town in San Diego, California.

Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 3 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (619) 337-1525 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.