Now starring in Theatre Exile's production of "True West" by Sam Shepard, Germantown resident Brian Osborne said that he's been a big fan of the playwright since college when his first leading role was in Shepard's "Lie of the Mind."

"Once I got bit by Sam Shepard, I just went down the rabbit hole," Osborne told NewsWorks the day before the start of the "True West" run at Center City's historic Plays and Players Theatre last week.

In fact, he recalled college house parties where friends would perform their own one-act plays as well as pieces by Shepard.

"We'd roll a keg down the stairs and put a couple clip lights next to the broiler and everyone would just sit there and get [drunk]," he said, "and we'd do theater between 12 and 2 in the morning."

'Theater as communion'

For Osborne, it was the perfect way to dig in to Shepard's work; it was "the whole idea of theater as communion, bringing people together in a very athletic, emotional sense."

Movie lovers know Shepard from a film career spanning more than 40 years, including roles in 1980s favorites like "Steel Magnolias" (you can catch him on the big screen now in the Oscar-nominated "August: Osage County").

He's also known for penning dark, gritty and powerful family stage dramas like "Curse of the Starving Class" and "Buried Child."

"True West," which many theater-lovers consider part of a trilogy alongside "Curse of the Starving Class" and "Buried Child," follows a pair of grown-up brothers with some unhealed wounds.

Austin is a Hollywood screenwriter house-sitting for their mother in southern California; Lee is a volatile drifter who puts an unexpected wrench in his brother's plans.

Northwest Philly ties

Philadelphia's Theatre Exile is producing "True West" as part of its 17th season, and out of a cast of four, Osborne isn't the only performer hailing from Northwest Philadelphia.

E. Ashley Izard, a Nashville native who settled in East Falls, also appears in the show.

Local theatergoers may have noticed her onstage with Mt. Airy's Quintessence Theatre Group, where she appeared last year as Queen Gertrude in Shakespeare's "Hamlet."

A former elementary education professional, Izard spent about a decade away from the stage before becoming a performer full-time.

She's had roles at Chestnut Hill's Stagecrafters Theater as well as at regional favorites like Lantern Theater Company, the Arden, the Walnut Street Theatre's Studio 3 and more.

With an MFA in acting from Temple University, Izard said her career has been "a long meandering path," but that "theater keeps drawing me back."

It's her first Shepard show, and while she enjoys working with Theatre Exile, she admits her role as the unnamed "Mom" to Lee and Austin is a tough one.

The character "doesn't appear until the very last scene of the play. That is challenging to the actor."

For his part, Osborne said he's always been waiting for the chance to play Lee (opposite Jeb Kreager's Austin).

"I've wanted the role my whole life and I'm finally old enough to play it," he said.

Keen on Germantown

Osborne, who works days as the owner/operator of general-contracting outfit Osborne Construction, grew up in Florida and settled with his family in Germantown about eight years ago, following a decade of the actor's life in New York City.

His wife, a Philadelphia native, helped to draw the family to Germantown, as well as the "prospect for living a tad bit less of a chaotic existence."

He enjoys owning a home on McCallum Street which he and his wife renovated themselves, with his best friend's family living next door.

"We busted down the fence and let the kids run around all summer long. ... It's pretty idyllic as far as city living goes," he added, comparing his block to Sesame Street. "Everyone takes care of each other."

While he has a long acting resume including stage and film, Osborne's other artistic specialty is as a theatrical "devisor": developing text, dialogue or characterizations for new plays through improvisation and other collaborations.

With experience on all sides of the creative process, Osborne has special appreciation for Shepard's touch as a writer and the actor's responsibilities to the text, in this case under director Matt Pfeiffer.

"How do you meet the play where it asks you to go? It's terrifying and also relaxing at the same time," he said. "It's a tall measure as a piece of theater, but it's also so clearly drawn."

"True West," offering a glimpse of the playwright's own struggles, is one of Osborne's favorites.

"The piece really is [Shepard] battling out in himself what is the spiritual yet commercial validity of his work as an artist. How much is it worth and what does it mean?" he said.

Theatre Exile's "True West" ($20-50, $10-15 for students) started its run at the Plays and Players Theatre (1714 Delancey St., Philadelphia) on Thursday and goes through Feb. 23.

For tickets and more information, call 215-218-4022 or visit www.theatreexile.org.