Heartless' is classic Shepard with twists
In "Heartless," we are in that strange yet familiar place known as Sam
Shepard-land. And yet, this time, we are also somewhere else.
Shepard's surreal, haunting if not entirely satisfying new mystery has aspects
of his 50-odd deeply scary, absurdly menacing, weirdly entertaining plays.
Desert-rat fathers still abandon their families, the open road belongs to
outlaws and the outlaws just might be your relatives.
But instead of estranged brothers with dual identities, "Heartless" has
estranged sisters with a ghostly twist on triple identities. This time, his
American-Gothic family of gold-standard eccentrics is not in some dirt-kicking
town at the end of nowhere, but housed at the fancy top of a Los Angeles cliff
(designed with austere invention and lovely ridiculous palm trees by Eugene
"This is L.A.," a character explains when asked about a yowling wail in the
night, "People scream all the time."
Gary Cole, a bit too light to embody one of Shepard's disruptive strangers,
plays Roscoe, a self-mythologizing Cervantes professor who moves into the family
home of Sally, a sulky, much younger, sometimes-lover, after bolting his wife
and kids. As curiously directed by Daniel Aukin, Julianne Nicholson stares
ponderously into a later-explained void as Sally, a beauty with a medical secret
who, among other effortful plot devices, thinks she's making a documentary about
More interesting is Sally's sister (the commanding Jenny Bacon), as stolid and
dowdily dressed as Sally is flighty and barely clothed. Best of all, there is
the formidable and daring Lois Smith as the mother with the unexplained
paralysis, plus her formal, perfect-looking but mute nurse (Betty Gilpin). When
the old woman with the poetic motormouth first describes the nurse's
"unconditional loyalty," we have no idea the conditions required.
This is not a play for people who need answers more than questions. And in early
heavy-handed scenes, Aukin lets Shepard's dry, ironic, stark dialogue drag into
But as the surprising plot unfolds and Smith lets loose into one of her
multileveled arias of contempt and sorrow, we feel the playwright moving into
gripping new territory. Just as the professor wants to go somewhere without a
name, Shepard, bless him, keeps us searching.