Pam Berlin's career has been leading up to directing Sam Shepard's "True West," even if she didn't realize it until she accepted the directing job at Pittsburgh Public Theater.
She assigned scenes from the play while teaching graduate students in directing, and she has seen several of the play's major productions, including the 2000 revival with Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly and the memorable Steppenwolf Theatre production, with relative unknowns Gary Sinise (who also directed) and John Malkovich playing "True West's" feuding brothers. The 1982 production transferred from Chicago to New York and was filmed for a PBS broadcast.
"True West" explores the explosive reunion of screenwriter Austin (Ken Barnett) with his older brother, Lee (David Mogentale), a drifter and thief. Lee has followed in the footsteps of their father, who casts a dark shadow over the siblings and their relationship with their mother (Mary Rawson).
"I've known the play for many years and I've thought about it a lot," said Ms. Berlin, who most recently directed "Clybourne Park" at the Public. "I think it's the family thing. I've been saying to myself for quite a few years, 'Oh my God, I've turned into my mother!' Those kinds of issues reach everyone. He takes it to an extreme."
The clash of siblings is inevitable and, as Ms. Berlin discovered in her extensive research, reflects the writer's own inner struggles and conflicted emotions about his father. "And this father in 'True West' is Sam Shepard's father," Ms. Berlin says. "Clearly Sam Shepard has been haunted by his father all of his life."
Mr. Shepard is an Oscar-nominated actor ("The Right Stuff") who recently was in Western Pennsylvania to shoot "Out of the Furnace," due in movie theaters Dec. 6. He's also the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of "Buried Child" and at 70 continues to write. "True West" was chosen by Ted Pappas as part of the Public's "Masterpiece Season" of works by American playwrights.
As in most of Mr. Shepard's works, reality exists on a heightened plane; "lyric naturalism," Ms. Berlin calls it.
It's also "very full of testosterone," the director acknowledges.
"It exists on so many levels. That's what makes it great and so amazing to work on. First, it's entertaining, it's funny, and in some ways it's very elemental, as so many of his plays are. The brother thing, the sibling thing -- it really taps into Cain and Abel and Greek mythology. That's how deep it goes. It's very visceral, and finding the right tone for the play is the big challenge for the director and the actors -- putting all those ingredients together and making the balance work."
This is the first time she has worked with Pittsburgh native Mogentale and she had to be reminded of her previous experience with Mr. Barnett. Both were cast in New York auditions.
"I didn't remember this but Ken, who plays Austin, but 20-some years ago I was running a summer theater program at Boston University, and he was a teenager taking it. It was a six-week intensive. So he remembered me; I didn't remember him. He told me when he came into the auditions."
In choosing her cast, it was important to the director to find actors who looked the part of brothers and could relate in that way, although in the case of "True West," that can be a double-edged sword. Ms. Berlin said she has heard of productions in which the actors haven't been able to leave their conflicts on the stage, but that hasn't been the case here.
"These two are so respectful of each other and gentle and kind with each other, which is nice, because it could go the other way," she said. "Because it's about raw stuff."
"True West" plays out as a battlefield of emotional baggage unburdened. They come from a family where warmth and nurturing weren't in big supply -- "We certainly get that when the mother appears," Ms. Berlin notes -- and we also know that Austin once looked up to his big brother, informing his reactions to what Lee has become.
Their differences play out in rough, gruff and sometimes comical interactions, including a scene in which Austin insists that the two drunken brothers need to have toast, and Lee resists.
Austin sees in toast the sun coming up -- "Like a beginning. I love beginnings," he says. To which Lee replies, "I've always been kinda partial to endings myself."
It's a scene that demonstrates what Ms. Berlin called "the yin and yang within."
"Shepard himself does not have any brothers, so it was not about a relationship," she said of the play. "It is in many ways about a divided self, and he is the first person in many ways to have acknowledged that."
The autobiographical nature of the play hit home for Ms. Berlin just before she left New York for Pittsburgh, when she saw "Shepard & Dark," a documentary chronicling the playwright's decades-long friendship with Johnny Dark, who now runs a deli counter at a New Mexico supermarket.
"There is footage of Sam Shepard visiting his father, who by then was very broken and destitute and alcoholic. He talks about him quite a bit in the documentary. ... He says, 'I spent my entire life trying not to be my father, and now that I am in my late middle age, I see how much of my father I have become.' That's certainly true for Lee," said Ms. Berlin," circling back to the characters in "True West." "And Austin has spent his entire life trying to escape that and to pull himself up by his bootstraps, and yet ... he can't escape it either. Ultimately, that's what this play is about."
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960.