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The Steppenwolf Ensemble on True West

Edited by Patrick Zakem

In 1982, Steppenwolf exploded onto the American Theatre scene with its now legendary production of Sam Shepard's True West. Now, 37 years later, ensemble members Randall Arney, Francis Guinan, Jon Michael Hill, Laurie Metcalf, Jeff Perry, and Gary Sinise, along with Artistic Producer Jonathan Berry, share reflections on Shepard's play.

What is your earliest memory of encountering True West?

Jeff Perry: Gary Sinise (one of Steppenwolf’s Co-Founders and our Artistic Director at the time in 1982) had been lobbying Sam Shepard’s agent for the rights for quite a while—we were aware that its world premiere production in New York, mysteriously to us, hadn’t been met with the critical passion that we felt the play could inspire. It was Gary’s excitement upon landing the rights for us to produce its Chicago premiere that I first remember.

Gary Sinise: It was a play that I tried to get the rights to for a while and it was a bit difficult at that time. Sam Shepard’s agent wanted to give that play to the Goodman Theatre; she was hoping that the Goodman would do it. Every time I would call she would say, “We want the Goodman to do it. We don’t know who you are. We have no idea who Steppenwolf is. We want the Goodman to do it.” And finally, I guess, the Goodman wasn’t gonna do it. I called enough times that she went ahead and just gave us the rights.

Randall Arney: My first encounter with True West came when I was an understudy for the first production. It was a treat to watch the show come together in rehearsal. Then getting to play Saul with Jeff Perry, John Malkovich, and Laurie Metcalf when the show moved to the Apollo Theater in the summer of ’82 was a privilege and a blast!

Laurie Metcalf: One of my strongest memories during rehearsal was John Malkovich needing to go to the bathroom after chugging so many beers and deciding to just pee in the sink on the set. He asked Gary, who was directing and sitting out in the house, if that was going to be ok during the show. Gary said, “Uhhhh, sure man.”

Francis Guinan: My first memory is the decision in rehearsal to base my Saul character on Wayne Adams, a New York producer of Say Goodnight, Gracie and a friend of Steppenwolf. Wayne was immensely funny, talented and energetic. He eventually played Saul himself in New York when our production moved to the Cherry Lane Theatre.

When you think back to the first Steppenwolf production of True West in 1982, what words come first to your mind?

Laurie Metcalf: Aggressive.

Jeff Perry: Well, let me bend my answer to two words—brotherly warfare.

Randall Arney: Audacious. And wild.

Francis Guinan: One word: intimidation. I recall Jeff Perry and John Malkovich had a bit where John would bring a five iron right up to Jeff’s face and tap gently on the lens of his glasses. It was simultaneously scary and funny.

What did the 1982 production of True West mean for Steppenwolf at the time?

Gary Sinise: It was a great cast and very funny; it did well at our home at the time, the Jane Addams Hull House. And then we moved it into a commercial run at Chicago’s Apollo Theater. We ran it there all summer before we moved it to New York. It was a big hit for us; it did a lot. It brought us onto the international stage. Because if something goes well in New York, you get a lot of international attention, because it’s written up in newspapers all over the place. And suddenly it was a big turning point for the theater, going from kind of a locally recognized theater in Chicago to a more internationally recognized company. It began a pattern of what has now been many years of moving shows to New York, but it was the first one we did there, and it certainly set the stage for a lot of cool things in the 1980’s and beyond.

What is it like revisiting this play at a different moment in Steppenwolf’s life?

Jonathan Berry: This is a play I thought I knew, having seen the filmed version in acting class and having heard the stories in the span of 20 years of working here. But what I’m finding remarkable is, being in the rehearsal room, I’m experiencing the extraordinary brilliance in the writing. The work that Jon and Namir are doing in their explorations are banishing whatever ghosts may have originally lurked around the rehearsal room. The story of these two brothers, seen through this current lens, is simultaneously reaching back while at the same time feeling impossibly, improbably current. A great story, told by brilliant actors, will always reveal truth to the moment of the telling.

Jon Michael Hill: I think it says the same things it was saying then. No matter what societal constraints we adopt there is always the human pull toward the freedom of our natural state. Familial baggage is passed down through generations. Hollywood is about who is the best at selling their bullshit. All still true today. It’s not helpful to think about past productions much when you’re trying to find your own way through a production but there are constant reminders. Thing is, I always approach the work full throttle. So when I think about it, it’s the same process as usual. That’s all I’m in control of.

Are there any specific moments in that original production that still stick with you?

Francis Guinan: My favorite specific moment in rehearsal was when Laurie Metcalf, playing Mom, walked in one night with a “kick me” sign on her back.

Laurie Metcalf: I was playing the mom and decided to stick a sign on my back that said “kick me,” as if someone on her bus trip had put it there. John saw it halfway through our scene and fell to his knees laughing. Not particularly needed in the scene, but it amused all of us.

Jeff Perry: The Veterans Night performance (a final dress performance performed exclusively for military veterans) during the original run at the Hull House elicited a night full of visceral reactions from the audience that was closer to a boxing match crowd than anything we could have expected or had encountered before.

Gary Sinise: It was kind of, you know, it’s like coyotes tearing at each other. There’s a cool image at the end where the brothers are facing off and the coyotes start yapping.

Randall Arney: Having had the pleasure of performing in it for that summer of ’82 with my friends and fellow actors, there are just too many memorable moments to name... both onstage and backstage! In fact, 37 years later, it is amazing to me how vivid, clear and present the memories are. Revisiting the play, this time as director, is bringing so many of those memories back to the fore. And it is gratifying to be adding Steppenwolf True West memories all these years later…