True West begins with the sound of crickets. A candle illuminates Austin sitting in the alcove adjoining his mother's kitchen. He is bent over a table writing in a tablet. Austin has all the accoutrements of a writer: coffee, a cigarette burning in the ashtray, stacks of paper. He is dressed properly, in a cardigan, slacks, and white tennis shoes.
Moonlight also reveals Lee in the kitchen. He is drinking beer and looks like he has slept in a ditch, with a filthy T-shirt, two days' growth of beard, and bad teeth. Lee is Austin's older brother. Their mother is in Alaska, and has left Austin in charge of the house. Lee asks question after question about the current situation: whether Austin has any coffee, whether he is taking care of the houseplants, whether he usually writes by candlelight, whether the Forefathers wrote by candlelight. The barrage of questioning obviously disrupts Austin's attempt to write, but Austin does not let on that is so.
Lee laughs at Austin's "art," which is just a little research for a screenplay. The first thing Austin asks Lee is about whether Lee has seen their father, "the old man." The brothers squabble about who has visited the old man more. Austin then asks Lee what he is doing here at their mother's house. Lee admits he is there to steal. Their mother lives in a nice community, one perfect for petty theft because of its big houses and decided lack of dogs. Austin had suspected something underhanded from his older brother, but stealing from his mother's neighborhood is crossing the line. Austin tries to convince Lee not to prowl around the neighborhood but Lee has his mind made up. Additionally, Lee wants the use of Austin's car for the day to case the neighborhood. Austin rejects this proposition with a good deal of force, not wanting Lee prowling around the neighborhood and certainly not interested in letting Lee use his car to do so.
Finally, Austin offers Lee money, at which point Lee lunges violently at Austin, grabbing his shirt, warning Austin never to say that to him again. He says that money offerings may be enough to appease the old man, but would never be enough for Lee. After a long pause, Lee says the crickets are incredibly monotonous. The moment of crisis is over. The brothers talk about Lee's time in the desert with a woman botanist, and Austin invites Lee to come live with he and his family in northern California. Lee discredits a settled life as a "sham." As the first scene closes, Austin asks Lee if he wants to sleep, but Lee says he does not sleep.
The curse of the family runs deep throughout Shepard's work. Tooth of Crime, Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class, and A Lie of the Mind are all family dramas. Being born into a family is everyone's curse, and getting out is often an ultimate—albeit impossible—goal. Unlike most of Shepard's other plays, True West at first seems to be a straightforward narrative about brotherly conflict and screenwriting, lacking in absurdist elements. There are no aria-like monologues, no slime oozing down the walls, no magical cornfield in the backyard: just a simple kitchen in a modest home outside of Los Angeles. In his own notes to potential directors, Shepard even specifies that there are not to be any dramaturgical tricks or concepts for the design of the set or the costumes; any such attempts would only confuse the character's evolution.
Therefore, we have a Formica and houseplant-adorned kitchen containing two brothers who by the end of play will try to kill each other. Two people could hardly look less like brothers than Austin and Lee. Austin is the prodigal son: the husband, the writer, the success. Lee is the failure: the thief, the drifter, the outcast. Austin is well manicured and proper, whereas Lee is a slovenly mess. Austin seems at first to be the one who got away, the brother who has survived the devastation of his family and somehow moved on to a sense of prosperity and release. Lee is at first the mirror image of his father, a drunk without a home, a man without direction. He is the aimless hero of Western myth: an outlaw who lives by his own code of morality.
As Austin writes, Lee subverts Austin's efforts at "art." But Austin cannot admit to Lee or to himself that what he is working on could be considered art, so he describes the work as "just a little research." Lee has nothing but contempt for Austin's life of the mind, and, having tried his own hand at the repugnant pursuit of it, declares that there is no future in art. The brothers' short discourse on art will be expanded throughout the play.
Although True West seems at first to be a straightforward narrative, the play becomes a sort of discourse on two different brands of identity. In short, the two brothers can be seen as the contrasting and warring sides of the artist. Austin feels squeamish about calling himself an artist. He would like to think of himself as a simple laborer, merely working on some research. He lacks the gusto and cockiness necessary for the creation of great art. Lee, on the other hand, is all gusto. He has no inhibitions about saying how he feels when he feels it. He is physically aggressive and even abusive. What he lacks, however, is the discipline necessary for sustaining any kind of artistic effort. Though each individual is flawed or incomplete, combined, the sensibilities of the two brothers are enough to form the soul of the artist. In this sense, True West becomes the physical manifestation of the creative act. It is not an easy process, as the brothers fight throughout almost the entire play. As a result of their constant war, however, they manage to produce the beginnings of a screenplay, something that neither one alone is able to manage. Only together are they actually an artist.