Steppenwolf Theatre Presents TRUE WEST Review – Mano e Mano with Manhood

Steppenwolf Theatre Presents TRUE WEST Review – Mano e Mano with Manhood, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED best play pick, Through August 25

Steppenwolf Theatre Company TRUE WEST
Jon Michael Hill (left) and Namir Smallwood (right)

In a well-scrubbed Southwest home we meet two brothers—one with the feel of a menacing street thug (Lee, played by Namir Smallwood) and the other feeling so buttoned up and respectable it is at first difficult to imagine they hail from the same family (Austin, played by Jon Michael Hill).   The well-scrubbed brother is an Ivy League graduate working on a screenplay; the brother from the street is mainly scheming to get his brother’s car so he can burglarize the well-heeled neighbors in the mountains near their mother’s suburban home.

From that first back-of-mind jarring of expectations that two brothers would probably be more alike, Actor/Playwright Sam Shepard’s script True West then unfolds to belie the adage that first impressions are usually the right ones. By play’s end-- in this writer’s view, powered in no small way by the fierce acting by Smallwood and Hill—that discarded first impression becomes an almost forgotten footnote in this tale of brotherly love and love-not raw emotions.

It seems almost innocuous at first—the bigger brother taunting the younger one from his tower of older brother advantage.   But as the coyotes howl through the nights outside the windows (Richard Woodbury: Sound Design)their feral energy seeps in, vacuuming any sense of calm and replacing it with layer on top of layer of violence. We rarely see passions so raw on a stage or in life, and the brilliance of this production is that it never crosses a line into unbelievable, even though many, if not most of us, have never experienced emotional terrain like this firsthand—or so we thought.   Are we just seeing an update to those ubiquitous and humdrum types of roughhousing brothers we see wearied parents implore to give it a rest? (Director: Randall Arney)

We never meet their father, but we learn pretty early on that the wounds from this father’s failures are a shared point of reference. But were there a father figure in their lives, instead of the MIA mother (Jacqueline Williams) whose physical entry to the scene is almost --- almost—a comic relief as she demonstrates just how MIA she’s been for a long, long time???

Steppenwolf Theatre Re-Stages a Classic that Helped Launch Them

The cast is rounded out by Francis Guinan as a Hollywood agent. How gratifying to read in the program notes that this is his second go’round in this role—the first being with the original cast including the now legendary John Malkovich and Jeff Perry. That production was directed by Gary Sinise and was the plum he lobbied extensively to get the rights to produce--- a wise spotting of a script gem that helped catapult Steppenwolf to international fame in the theater world.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company TRUE WEST
Steppenwolf Theatre Company TRUE WEST

On Monday, August 5, 7 PM a special event for this production, True West Through The Decades, will bring past and present cast and creative team members from the Steppenwolf Ensemble together to talk about this work.

Like the desert air plants of the True West terrain, this script roots almost magically in both then (1982) and now. In this writer’s view, if you love top shelf acting that alone should compel you to clear your schedule to see True West.


Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.

Watch this video showing the TOP PICK PLAYS of 2019

Playwright: Sam Shepard

Director Randall Arney


Francis Guinan (Saul Kimmer), Jon Michael Hill (Austin), Namir Smallwood (Lee), Jacqueline Williams (Mom)

Production team

Todd Rosenthal (Scenic Design), Trevor Bowen (Costume Design), Ann G. Wrightson (Lighting Design),Richard Woodbury (Sound Design & Original Music), Ned Mochel (Fight Choreographer) and Gigi Buffington (Company Voice and Text Coach). Additional credits Laura Glenn (Production Stage Manager), Amanda Landis (Assistant Stage Manager), JC Clementz, CSA (Casting Director) and Jonathan Berry (Artistic Producer).


Through August 25


Downstairs Theatre,
1650 N Halsted St.



Check for Half-Price Deals from Hot Tix:

For ticket availability and full-priced tickets visit the Steppenwolf website, or call 312-335-1650

All Images by Michael Brosilow

Note: Picture This Post reviews are excerpted by Theatre in Chicago

Amy Munice

About the Author: Amy Munice

Amy Munice is Editor-in-Chief and Co-Publisher of Picture This Post. She covers books, dance, film, theater, music, museums and travel. Prior to founding Picture This Post, Amy was a freelance writer and global PR specialist for decades—writing and ghostwriting thousands of articles and promotional communications on a wide range of technical and not-so-technical topics.

Amy hopes the magazine’s click-a-picture-to-read-a-vivid-account format will nourish those ever hunting for under-discovered cultural treasures. She especially loves writing articles about travel finds, showcasing works by cultural warriors of a progressive bent, and shining a light on bold, creative strokes by fledgling artists in all genres.


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