Setting is very important in True West by Samuel Shepard. As the title suggests, the play is set in the West—all the way on the West Coast in California. California is an important choice, because on the one hand, the house is close to flashy Hollywood. On the other hand, the raw desert is nearby. This shows the crossroads between the brothers. They come from different settings, meet in the middle, and merge in some transformation over the course of the play.
The action happens in their mother's kitchen. What do you think of when you think of a kitchen? Perhaps you think of a domestic atmosphere, or being in your mother's kitchen as a child with your siblings. Kitchens are where we cook and eat, so a certain amount of cleanliness comes to mind. It is no accident that the kitchen is destroyed by the end of the play. The clutter makes us think of their cluttered minds and descent into chaos or madness. The destruction of a kitchen suggests destruction of domestic home life. At the end of the play, the home is destroyed. Objects, such as a number of toasters, are piled in. Beer is spilled. The houseplants are dead.
The fire appears at the top of scene eight:
. . . before light comes up, a small fire blazes up in the dark from alcove area, sound of LEE smashing typewriter with a golf club, lights coming up, LEE seen smashing typewriter methodically then dropping pages of his script into a burning bowl set on the floor of alcove, flames leap up . . .
Shepard instructs the light of the fire to be seen first in the darkness, and then when the stage lights come up, we can see that Lee is dropping pages of his script into the flames. In their dialogue, the brothers do not address the fire. They discuss the stolen toasters and move on to making toast, but the fire is not mentioned.
By scene nine, there is
No sound, blazing heat, the stage is ravaged; bottles, toasters, smashed typewriter, ripped out telephone, etc. All the debris from previous scene is now starkly visible in intense yellow light, the effect should be like a desert junkyard at high noon, the coolness of the preceding scenes is totally obliterated.
The heat is physical, but also emotional. The brothers' tempers are heating up.
The setting is very important to Shepard, and he gives detailed notes on precisely how the set should look in the beginning and end of the play.
At the start, he notes,
The set should be constructed realistically with no attempt to distort its dimensions, shapes, objects, or colors. No objects should be introduced which might draw special attention to themselves other than the props demanded by the script. If a stylistic "concept" is grafted onto the set design it will only serve to confuse the evolution of the characters' situation, which is the most important focus of the play.
By the end, their mother even says "I don't recognize it at all," and Shepard leaves us with a final image created through the use of light and sound cues:
They square off to each other, keeping a distance between them. Pause, a single coyote heard in distance, lights fade softly into moonlight, the figures of the brothers now appear to be caught in a vast desert-like landscape, they are very still but watchful for the next move, lights go slowly to black as the after-image of the brothers pulses in the dark, coyote fades.
A final note that sticks out to me regarding the setting is Austin's line about his wife.
She's five hundred miles away. North. North of here. Up in the North country where things are calm.
His wife, not appearing in the play, is "where things are calm," suggesting how wild their location is.
I think the set represents the internal conflict of the characters and the conflict in their relationship as well.