True West is the second of a series of plays, starting with Curse of the Starving Class (pb. 1976), that break from Sam Shepard’s earlier nonrepresentational works such as The Tooth of Crime (pr. 1972). Structured in a representational form, these plays draw upon autobiographical material for their naturalistic plots involving domestic conflicts. The settings are either rural middle America (where Shepard was born), as for Buried Child (pr. 1978) and A Lie of the Mind (pr. 1985), or the Southwest (where Shepard grew up), as for Curse of the Starving Class, Fool for Love (pr. 1983), and True West. Character types and images reappear in these plays: a distant father in conflict with a dominating mother (resembling Shepard’s parents) and children dislocated by their parents’ sometimes mysterious behavior, and references to coyotes and barren land that evoke ambiguous interpretations.
Shepard employs his trademark technique of character transformation in these plays to represent divided characters whose struggles reflect his perennial concerns: critiquing American myths and portraying the artist’s inner conflict in creating art. True West, in particular, has provoked much critical comment in response to its rendition of these themes. While some critics find the play troubling for its inconclusiveness, others find it a rich work full of provocative interpretations.