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By Stewart McBrideStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 26, 1980

San Francisco

Opening night at the Magic Theather. Drama critics, representing publications from the Village Voice to Newsweek, are jammed into the third floor 99-seat theater on the San Francisco waterfront. Tonight they outnumber the paying customers for the world premiere of "True West," the latest play by Pulitzer Prize for drama.

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The house lights dim, and in the green glow of the exit sign Shepard's harshest critic, a handsome rangy fellow in dark aviator glasses and tooled cowboy boots, slumps into the back row. He wears blue jeans, an orange T-shirt, a silver and turquoise belt buckle. He stares sternly at the stage set, the kitchen of a tract home 40 miles east of Los Angeles. In this suburban setting, "Trust West" uses a sibling rivalry to explore old myths and new realities of the American frontier. In one scene, Austin, who is writing a script for Hollywood -- a western romance -- is caught stuffing Wonder Bread into stolen chrome toasters while his brother Lee, a petty thief, axes Austin's typewriter with a 9 iron. The man with the cowboy boots in the back row begins to giggle. Now and then he cuts loose with a belly laugh. The other critics turn and glare.

To their surprise the gentleman making all the racket is the playwright. Normally his own toughest critic, tonight Shepard, twirling a single red rose, is thoroughly enjoying his newest creation.

"This is the first one of my plays I've been able to sit through night after night and not have my stomach ball up in knots of embarrassment," he later tells me in his easygoing western drawl. "I worked longer on this than any other play and rewrote it 13 times. 'True West' is the first play I've truly felt hooked up to."

That is quite a confession coming from the man who is arguably America's best practicing playwright. After Tennessee Williams, Shepard is said to be the most produced American playwright in this country. Since 1964, when he was 20 years old and his first one-act showed in an Off Off-Broadway theater more than 40 of his plays have been produced. Added to this mountainous achievement he has won seven Obie (Off-Broadway) awards, though ironically has never had one of his plays produced in a commercial Broadway theater. Among his counterculture credentials are collaborations with Bob Dylan, Michelangelo Antonioni, Mick Jagger, and New Wave poet-singer Patti Smith.

Shepard's plays are distinctly American in scope and subject: Old West cowboys, fading rock and roll stars, sci-fi monsters, Hollywood agents. Yet, like America's jazz men in the 1940s and '50s, he in many ways is better known on the other side of the Atlantic. In Europe Martin Esslin, former head of the BBC's drama division, says, "Sam Shepard ism contemporary American theater."

"True West," which opened this month in New York at the Public Theater, is thought by many critics to be the best play Shepard has ever written. It is the third in a trilogy of plays on the disintegration of the family and was preceded by "The Curse of the Starving Class" in 1977 and in 1978 by "Buried Child," for which he won the Pulitzer. "True West" is a sharp departure from his more experimental and often elliptical earlier plays.

This is his first true comedy and has the trademarks of great dramatic work: realism, well-crafted character, and economy of language. Shepard has edited out any heavy-handed metaphysical symbolism which invaded some of his earlier writing, thus making "True West" an intriguing play open to broad interpretation. The bucking bronco of the American theater has settled down, and the audience is the beneficiary.

As if maturation as a playwright were not enough, he has taken up, with startling success, a second career -- acting. Two years ago he made his debut as the mealdncholy land owner in Terrence Malick's cinematic object d'art,m "Days of Heaven." After rave reviews, Shepard was cast as the son of a Kansas preacher , alongside Ellen Burstyn in the current film "Resurrection."