Heartless Review
Brendan Lemon, The Financial Times

Stronger in theme than in narrative, this drama is a minor yet compelling addition to Sam Shepard’s corpus

“We can’t sweep lust under the table,” declares Mable Murphy, the matriarch at the centre of Heartless, a new play from Sam Shepard. No other volcanic emotion is ever far from Mable’s lips, either: rage, upset, fury. At home in a grand Los Angeles property, with sweeping views towards the Pacific, Mable is looked after by one daughter, Lucy, dutiful in sensible shoes, while the other daughter, Sally, entertains a gentleman house guest, Roscoe, a 65-year-old scholar of Cervantes with a sideline in Borges.

Given the semi-magical, ghostlike centre of the story, Borges is apposite. Most of the characters in this resonant puzzle of a play – the final member of the ensemble is a nurse, Elizabeth, outfitted in an old-school starchy white uniform – have at least a veneer of literary culture.

But knowledge of books is insufficient consolation for the violence coursing through Shepard’s corpus, of which "Heartless" is a minor yet compelling addition. As Shepard has said: “We live in a destroyed culture. It’s shreds of stuff. We’re among shrapnel.”

The detritus of Heartless is bountiful. Sally, suffering from severe pique, is given a lovely, bruised quality by Julianne Nicholson. Sally had a heart transplant at the age of 10, and the donor was a murdered girl. Her private chats with this child spur the central plot line in the two-act evening: who here is dead, who alive?

More striking, however, than that Sixth Sense tease is the theme of representation. To what degree do people in our life today stand for primal figures from our past? Mable was abandoned by her husband; Roscoe has just left his wife. Elizabeth goes for a run in the prickly California undergrowth. The blood on her feet reminds us of Sally’s childhood surgical procedure.

Stronger in theme than in narrative, "Heartless" features an intrepid band of actors. Against the expanse of Eugene Lee’s set – a foreground table, two beds, two palm trees – the artists commit utterly to their characterisations. Sometimes a little too intently: wheeled in by the nurse, Mable, as a character, already edges a bit far into Tennessee Williams territory, and Lois Smith’s biting declamation of her lines kept my sympathy at bay. But Smith is an actor of so many colours that no character as written is going to defeat her.