More than three decades ago, Sam Shepard said this:
“I feel that language is a veil holding demons and
angels which the characters are always out of touch
with. Their quest in the play is the same as ours in
life—to find those forces to meet them face to face and
end the mystery.”
He’s still at it. Shepard’s new
play, Heartless, in world premiere at Signature
Theatre in New York, demonstrates again that the mystery
will not end. Your tolerance for
unsolved—unsolvable-- mystery will be the gauge of how
much you like this play.
Being a card-carrying Shepard fan, I
was deeply intrigued and moved, but I spoke to people
(and overheard others) who were deeply irked.
The sound design (Eric Shimelonis) is
pure Shepard: dogs, cars, and silence.
The lighting design (Tyler Micoleau)
is pure Shepard: bright spotlights to black.
The set design (Eugene Lee) is pure
Shepard: wooden planks, messy beds, jokey faux
California palm trees.
But the gender makeup of the
outstanding cast is surprising: four women and one man.
This is not the expected Shepard guy play, and, as
Daniel Aukin, who directs, said, “this play comes from a
very surprising place in Sam—it just surfaced….it poured
out of him.”
Heartless begins with a
A young woman, Sally (Julianne
Nicholson), is lying on a bed naked except for her
panties. This will turn out to be important since there
is no trace of the scar that her mother (the formidable
Lois Smith) mentions; later we’ll have a brief glimpse
of the sexy mute nurse (Betty Gilpin—a spectacular
screamer) with a shocking red line bisecting her chest.
There is another daughter, Sally’s sister Lucy (Jenny
Bacon), drab and desperate. Roscoe (Gary Cole), a
married literature professor more than twice Sally’s
age, is the lover/visitor. There is much talk of
husbands and fathers abandoning their families.
In the course of various emotional
explosions, everyone will depart? disappear? were they
there in the first place? leaving Sally and her
wheelchair-bound, Shakespeare-quoting mother alone. We
learn that Sally was born with “aortic incompetence” – a
malfunctioning heart. The play’s title suddenly seems
both literal and figurative.
There are great, tantalizing lines
like, “Another fable in the Los Angeles canon of
hysterical imaginings,” which may be a description of
the play itself. Or of the entire Shepard canon.