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