Writers: Brittany K. Allen, Gemma Kaneko & Adin Lenahan
Director: Gemma Kaneko
Reviewer: Carrie Lee O’Dell
Sam Shepard’s 1983 play True West explores the relationship between two very different brothers—a by-the-books screenwriter who is working on his newest script and his older brother, a drunken petty thief who imagines himself a cowboy. In True Right, Bess and George Theatre Company reimagines Shepard’s play with Jeb and George Walker Bush. The result is an exploration of legacy, sibling rivalry, and the state of the Republican party.
George W. Bush (Brittany K. Allen) has retired from political life and just wants to sit in the sun room and paint. His plans are disrupted when his brother Jeb (Gemma Kaneko) shows up, looking for help with his presidential campaign. George is reluctant to help at first, but when Jeb’s new campaign manager Sleve Earp (Adin Lenahan) arrives to discuss Jeb’s branding and strategy, George can’t help but steal the spotlight. The brothers bond over their shared history and fight over their different approaches to leadership, culminating in a knock-down-drag-out fight, the kind only siblings can have.
The acting and writing are superb. Casting two women of color as glowing examples of white male privilege highlights the absurdity of many of their statements. W’s folksy anecdotes and goofy nicknames sound wildly different when Brittany K. Allen gives them voice, even though she perfectly captures the vocal cadence and physicality of our 43rd president. That Allen is considerably taller than Gemma Kaneko further emphasizes their sibling dynamic; Jeb literally has to look up to his older brother for approval. (Jeb Bush is actually taller than his brother in real life.) Both Allen and Kaneko are to be commended for their close study of the Bush brothers. Adin Lenahan’s campaign manager offers a necessary contrast to the world outside of the Bush ranch and his later appearance as Barbara Bush not only brings us back to the play’s source material, but reminds us that the former First Lady and First Mother has spent much of her life in the spotlight and maybe, just maybe, would like to retreat from the public eye in the way her eldest son has.
The evening’s only weak spot occurs with an extended lip sync/dance sequence to Styx’s Come Sail Away, meant to evoke family gatherings in Kennebunkport. While it’s wonderfully funny and reminds us that the former leader of the free world was once a Yale cheerleader, it runs a bit long. Design and technical elements for True Right are serviceable—they don’t detract from the play, but they don’t add much. Sound is uneven, with some cues that appear to come in early or too low.
With a news cycle that presents us with First Family shenanigans on a daily basis, this play is particularly timely. It gives us a conflict that is deeper than morality or political ideology—that of sibling rivalry and jealousy. W and Sleve Earp both point out to Jeb that while he has the brains to be president, Middle America will never elect him as he presents himself. Sleve Earp tells him that coal miners aren’t going to vote for someone who “plays tennis and doesn’t eat bread,” while big brother George repeatedly calls Jeb “a nerd.” With so many people self-identifying as nerds, it seems an ineffectual taunt, but the hurt and eventual rage that it calls forth for Jeb tell us that this insult reaches back to childhood. It will be exciting to see how this show develops; it seems like a work with a real future. It’s smart, funny, and profoundly relevant—well worth the trip to Christopher Street.
Runs until 15 July 2017