After a lifetime of writing fierce plays about fathers
and sons, scribe Sam Shepard has written a not-so-fierce play about a mother
(played by the indomitable Lois Smith) and her unhappy brood of daughters. The
central character of "Heartless" is a 65-year-old man who walked away from his
wife and children and into a relationship with a woman half his age. But despite
his glib tongue and sexual magnetism, this rolling stone is ultimately
out-talked and out-maneuvered by Shepard's women.
Mable Murphy (Smith), a cranky old woman in a wheelchair, shrewdly sizes up the
stranger who unexpectedly turns up at her isolated home in the Hollywood Hills
as being "lost in the woods." Roscoe Hubbard (Gary Cole) is also lost in this
all-female household, which is hardly the ideal sanctuary for a runaway husband
to "heal up" after abandoning his family. But Roscoe is the guest of Mable's
sullen and withdrawn daughter Sally (Julianne Nicholson), a documentary
filmmaker who picked up this sort-of famous literary figure, took him home and
into her bed, and doesn't seem particularly anxious to cut him loose.
Nicholson makes sensitive and technically subtle work of Sally, a damaged woman
kept alive by a transplanted heart and feeling damned angry (and guilty) about
that. Hiding behind her video camera, she's quick-witted and bitterly funny -- a
good match, actually, for Roscoe.
But Roscoe can't keep his eyes off Elizabeth (Betty Gilpin), Mable's beautiful
mute nurse and, mysteriously enough, the presumably dead donor of Sally's heart.
And, just to throw in one more complication, Sally's mousey older sister, Lucy
(Jenny Bacon, in full command), a slavish nurse to their demanding mother, has
also taken a shine to Roscoe.
Shepard's plays tend to resolve themselves in explosions of endgame violence --
great mythic clashes between lovers ("Fool for Love"), fathers and sons ("Buried
Child"), warring generations ("The Tooth of Crime"). Despite a skirmish in which
the sisters try to stop Roscoe from leaving, "Heartless" lacks such a dramatic
showdown and suffers for it.
What the play does have in spades, however, is the scribe's distinctive lyrical
voice, best contained in Mable's speeches, including this harrowing recollection
of Sally's heart surgery: "My pink daughter -- just a corpse waiting to be
brought back to life. No breath. No mind. Sliced open like a deer in the woods.
Steaming in the yellow leaves."
Although no less controlled, that astonishing voice grows more expansive in
Roscoe's final apocalyptic vision of tearing down the highway, desperately
trying to vanish, "like a demon ... a phantom ... a ghost," from a civilization
going up in flames. Not to mention his own guilt.
The only drawback is that these powerful words are delivered mostly in
monologues, and only rarely in dialogues engaging multiple characters. The
closest the play comes to an actual exchange is when Mable instructs Roscoe on
the differences between mothers and fathers. "You could be a cold-blooded killer
and your mother would forgive you," she declares, in Smith's riveting perf,
adding that "the father would be full of judgment and condemnation ... He would
Not that Roscoe gets any comfort from Mable. "I don't subscribe to the cult of
apology," she lectures the runaway family man. "Sin is sin. It's guilt we're
trying to squirm out of." Director Daniel Aukin ("4000 Miles") is the kind of
director actors like to work with. Instead of manufacturing dramatic effects for
static scenes, he leaves his thesps free to play their characters' internal
dramas, a technique that pays off in unforced but precise role-playing. Smith's
monstrous matriarch may rule the roost (to the point of overwhelming Cole's
Roscoe when he neglects to get out of the way), but the three younger women hold
their ground, and Nicholson is quite fearless at revealing Sally's pain.
As befits a play with more than a few unresolved mysteries, Eugene Lee's
suggestive set is built on abstract images cast in Stygian gloom by Tyler
Micoleau's lighting. The most dramatic visual is the severely raked stage that
backs onto a canyon -- the bleak abyss that Mable peers into when she's in the
mood to frighten herself. The two brass beds that take center stage get some
action, but the long, empty highways that beckon Roscoe and transfix Shepard are
left to the imagination.