Problems Between Brothers: A Guide to TRUE WEST

What are the features of a quintessential American play? It would perhaps center a pair of brothers; it might tell a gritty story about the disintegration of an American family; and it would likely have something to say about the violent struggles of men grasping at the mirage of an American dream.  

Within this framework, nothing gets more quintessentially American than True West, Sam Shepard’s 1980 play once described by the New York Post as his “masterwork.” And it’s no wonder that Julia May Jonas selected True West as a source for her play cycle ALTAS (“All Long True American Stories”), which “responds to five white ‘male-experience’ plays of the American Western theatrical Canon.” 

Her response to Shepard’s play is Problems Between Sisters, featuring—you guessed it—a pair of sisters who have some serious problems. While her play is a thrilling watch even without context, its eerie echoes of True West provoke a deeper conversation about what we consider to be the American experience, and who is left out of that narrative.  

In True West, the disheveled early-forties nomad Lee visits his settled younger brother Austin as Austin takes care of their mother’s suburban Southern California home in her temporary absence. Austin envies Lee’s careless freedom and lack of obligation; Lee envies Austin’s success and stability.  

Austin is a promising screenwriter on the brink of selling a screenplay with the support of a producer, Saul; but Lee interrupts their meeting, and Saul, charmed by the personable-though-unqualified older brother, decides instead to back Lee’s vague pitch for a ‘true’ Western movie. Lee struggles to do it alone, so Austin must write the outline and the screenplay for Lee’s movie, abandoning his own project because of Saul’s change of heart. In exchange for helping Lee, Austin acts on his desire to be more like his brother: he steals toasters, drinks constantly, and makes Lee promise to take him to the desert, where Lee spends most of his time. Without the brothers’ caretaking, their mother’s house falls into chaos.  

This is, of course, where their mother (called Mom in Shephard’s script) enters and sees the mess in the house. She resigns herself to the damage and watches her sons squabble: Against Austin’s wishes, Lee now wants to abandon the screenplay and the deal with Austin, so he steals some antique household items and makes to exit. The brothers’ squabble devolves into a violent, near-fatal fight, destroying the house in front of their mother. She exits. The play ends with the brothers at an impasse, each watching the other as the lights fade to black.  

Problems Between Sisters follows much of the same story. Mom’s suburban Southern California house becomes Aunt Barb’s home in Vermont; the siblings squabble not over authentic Western movies, but what would be the older sister’s first solo New York art exhibit; the character with parallels to Lee is 29 years old, while the character who parallels Austin is 39; and, perhaps most notably, the siblings are both eight months pregnant.  

Despite these differences, the weird parts of the original play stay weird…or get weirder. The American wilderness encroaches on the brothers’ lives in True West with the chirping of crickets and the howling of coyotes—“between you, the coyotes and the crickets a thought don’t have much of a chance,” says Lee to Austin as he attempts to write his magnum opus—and the crickets reappear in Problems Between Sisters accompanied by fireflies and thunderstorms. A story about the brothers’ absent father roaming the desert with decaying teeth becomes an arguably even more disturbing tale about one of the sister’s absent father.  

There are plenty of American plays about brothers, but as the gallery owner Anita in Jonas’s play tells the two central characters, “People love sisters.” Gone is the hand-wringing woman watching passively as her sons fight; the women in Problems Between Sisters have plenty of agency, even if they use it toward their own undoing.   

—Malaika Fernandes