Heartless Review
Carol Rocamora, Broad Street Review

Sam Shepard confronts his demons (yet again)

There’s a whole lot of hurling going on in Heartless, Sam Shepard’s dark, indecipherable new play. Hurling of bodies (in and out of bed, on and off each other, on and off the floor, up and down ramps), hurling of insults, threats and accusations, hurling of luggage and clothes and belongings - you get the idea.

The question is: What does all this hurling amount to? (There’s plenty of howling, too, but more of that later.).

For those of us who awaited the arrival of a new play by one of America’s greatest living playwrights with keen anticipation, Heartless is somewhat of a letdown. Shepard’s newest work at first sounds like an evening of sound and fury, signifying nothing - or at least something we can’t quite figure out.

Themes of Shepard’s past plays get rehashed, and not as piercingly. Long rambling speeches sound reminiscent of those in his previous works. Even the settings– the lone palm tree, the bleak interior, the empty single bed - are recycled Shepard landscapes.

Granted, it’s hard for writers to top their past great accomplishments. Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams constantly suffered from high expectations and unfair comparisons after their respective masterpieces, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf  and A Streetcar Named Desire. And now Shepard, author of peak works like Curse of The Starving Class, Buried Child and True West, confronts the same pressures.

Mysterious malady

On the other hand, Heartless is intriguing on several levels. It’s the first Shepard play in which the female characters significantly outnumber the men– in this case, by four to one. Shepard’s previous macho-dominated plays featured all kinds of archetypical males posturing and posing. In Heartless, however, the female character studies are complex and intriguing. (If only they were less obscure and contradictory.)

Heartless tells the story (at least I think it does) of a dysfunctional, fragmented family of women living in some unnamed American desert (typical of many Shepard locales). A disagreeable caregiver named Lucy is nursing her sister Sally, who suffers from some mysterious malady. The sisters live under the shadow of their tyrannical mother Mabel, who fell out of a tree decades ago and is confined to a wheelchair, ministered to by a mute blond nurse named Liz.

This bizarre female ménage-a-quatre is disturbed by the arrival of Roscoe, whom Sally has taken in after he abandoned his wife and children.

Heart transplant

Roscoe turns out to be very nice, actually, in contrast to his unpleasant hostesses. Mabel reviles him to his face; Lucy strives to get rid of him; and Liz– well, Liz, as it happens, takes him to bed (Sally won’t, or can’t, for some unexplained reason). 

But nothing is what it seems in this play. Sally’s malady turns out to be a heart transplant, which doesn’t seem to have taken. And the heart turns out to have belonged, originally, to Liz.

Wait— so what does that make Liz? Real or imaginary? And why, if she’s supposed to be mute, does she howl all through Act I and then speak in full clear sentences in Act II?

Maybe I missed something. But I wish Shepard had made it easier to figure out what’s going on.

Queen of Mean

Even more game-changes occur in Act II, but what holds the audience’s attention throughout this confusion is the strength of the individual performances, skillfully directed by Daniel Aukin. Lois Smith as the matriarch Mabel leads this pack of Furies. She’s a memorable character, drawn in the tradition of larger-than-life she-tyrants like Bernarda Alba in Lorca’s eponymous masterwork, or Claire in Durrenmatt’s The Visit, or Violet Weston in Tracy Lett’s August, Osage County.

Lois Smith delivers a virtuoso performance of this Queen of Mean with devilish bravado. Perched high above the audience in her wheelchair, she looks down upon her domain with grim determination. “I’d like to gaze out into the abyss for a while,” she says, with perverse pleasure.

Shepard’s alter egos

What fascinated me most about Heartless is its autobiographical content. Maybe I’m guessing, but I kept hearing the author’s voice through each of his characters– the women as well as the lone man. Leitmotifs of rootlessness, homelessness, loss of identity– so prevalent in Shepard’s early plays– arise in Heartless once again, abetted this time by deafness, mute-ness, abandonment and isolation.

“I want to stay alive,” yearns one character. “I want to come to life,” echoes another. “I didn’t see any of it coming– none of it,” laments a third.

Can it be that this 69-year-old playwright’s personal demons are still pursuing him? Can the writer who suffered from a rootless childhood and a sad series of broken family relationships be peering, like Mabel, crippled from a fall,  into the abyss of age?

“I’m not doing this [playwriting] to vent demons,” Shepard wrote in the program notes. “I want to shake hands with them.” In the case of Heartless, it’s more a lethal embrace than a handshake.