‘True West’ at Players by the Sea – A Dark Comedy with a Domestic Clash of Personalities

Tyler Hammond, Tyrone Thornhill and Josh Andrews

A DUAL CRITICS REVIEW 

Jacksonville Beach’s Players by the Sea opened True West, the fifth play of the current season, on March 15, 2019, which runs through March 31. The production is staged in the intimate Studio Stage theatre. The theatre is located at 106 6th Street North in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. For reservations call 904-249-0289 or visit playersbythesea.  

Playwright Sam Shepard (1943  – 2017) was notably successful as both a writer and actor; he received a Pultitzer for Buried Child in 1979. True West debuted in 1980, and was nominated for the Pulitzer in 1983. Many well-known actors have appeared in the role over the years; they include Tommy Lee Jones, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Randy Quaid, Dennis Quaid, John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, and Bruce Willis. The play remains popular; a recent Broadway production just closed.  

The story is a dark, dark comedy, which takes place in the kitchen of a California home. Austin, a screenwriter, has temporarily left his wife and family up north to house-sit for his Mom while she’s visiting Alaska. Lee, his older brother, has unexpectedly joined him after spending several months in the desert with their unemployed alcoholic father. Lee is also a heavy drinker, a con-man and thief, who is taking a brief break from his wandering life of crime.

Adding to this domestic clash of personalities and past hurts and rivalries is Saul Kimmer, a film producer. The role is portrayed by Tyrone Thornhill in his Players’ debut, who was previously seen in 5 & Dime’s Evil Dead and Phase Eight’s MLKBlvd. Saul may be able to give Austin his first big break if he likes the screenplay he’s working on. It doesn’t work out that way. Lee captivates Saul by pitching his idea for “a modern western – a true story” and Saul decides to drop Austin’s project and support Lee instead.   

Tyrone Thornhill, Josh Andrews, Tyler Hammond, True West, Players by the Sea, Written by Sam Shepard, Directed by Brian Niece, Photos by Bradley Akers, Jacksonville Beach, Florida
Tyrone Thornhill, Josh Andrews and Tyler Hammond, Photo by Bradley Akers

Sibling warfare escalates in the second act, as both Austin and Lee get drunk, wreck the house, and continue fighting until Mom arrives home. Mom is portrayed by Brooklyn Murphy, a veteran of film and theatre for twenty years in in New York and California, although a newcomer to our local stages.

The first act has several scene changes underscored by turning down the lights and adding a verse or two of twangy good old country cowboy music.

The second act is the most exciting. After extensive destruction, toast wielded as a weapon, and insights provided by Mom’s brief appearance, a conclusion of sorts is reached. Well, sort of, we will leave the conclusion for you to experience.

Brooklyn Murphy, Josh Andrews and Tyler Hammond, True West, Players by the Sea, Written by Sam Shepard, Directed by Brian Niece, Photos by Bradley Akers, Jacksonville Beach, Florida
Brooklyn Murphy, Josh Andrews and Tyler Hammond, Photo by Bradley Akers

The well-groomed and soft-spoken Austin is portrayed by Josh Andrews, a Jacksonville University senior previously seen on JU stages as Major Strasse in Casablanca and as Jack in Into The Woods. The slovenly and belligerent brother Lee is in the hands of Tyler Hammond. His appearance is quite changed from previous times we have seen him on stage, as Officer Rooney in Arsenic and Old Lace and Thomas Moore in Wolf Hall, both at Theatre Jacksonville. These two actors fully capture the good son/bad son theme with their fine performances.

A newcomer to the local theatre scene, Brian Niece, directed this western saga expertly and in addition added the music used during scene changes. Mr. Neice moved here with his family from Nashville, and his first venture into local theatre involved playing the leading role in 5 & Dime’s How I Learned to Drive.

Tyler Hammond and Josh Andrews, True West, Players by the Sea, Written by Sam Shepard, Directed by Brian Niece, Photos by Bradley Akers, Jacksonville Beach, Florida
Tyler Hammond and Josh Andrews

Bradley Akers, aided by Production Manager Jereme Raickett, designed and built the very beautifully realistic kitchen and dining alcove.

The creative team included Brian Niece (Director), Kristin Livingston (Stage Manager), Jereme Raickett (Production Manager), Bradley Akers (Scenic Designer), Austin Kelm (Lighting Designer), and Gayle Featheringill (Costume Designer).

Of note, Player’s next production is The Wild Party, a large-cast jazz-age musical, April 26 – May 18.

We found True West an interesting study in how different two brothers can be when locked in competition – a dynamic dating back to the struggle between Cain and Abel. The production was an excellent staging of a modern classic.  

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.
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