Getting Faster with Age: Sam Shepard's New Velocity
Source: The New York Times - February 12, 2010

When Sam Shepard directed the original 1985 Off Broadway production of his play “A Lie of the Mind,” about emotionally scarred young men and the damaged women in their lives, the production ran six hours at first. His latest play, “Ages of the Moon,” about two emotionally scarred men in their 60s (the damaged women remain offstage) lasts about 80 minutes.

Time, in other words, has started slipping away in the Shepard canon, and the playwright could not be more at peace with that.

“I see my older plays as clunky relatives to the ones I’m doing now, to be honest, and I don’t have a great deal of interest in those older plays,” Mr. Shepard, who is also an actor, said in an interview over a late lunch in Manhattan recently. He added, “I’ve come to feel that if I can’t make something happen in under an hour and a half, it’s not going to happen in a compelling way in a three-hour play.”

Sam during rehearsal of
"Ages of the Moon"

January 2010

Mr. Shepard, who won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1979 for his play “Buried Child,” and is also the author of “True West” and more than 40 other plays, has always been a writer of economy, even when his men of few words take three acts to say them. Now, at 66, he has increasingly delved into punchy, pithy reflection, with “Ages of the Moon” - at the Atlantic Theater Company in Chelsea through March 21 — centered on a pair of friends, Ames and Byron, speaking about loss and regret from the vantage point of later life. It’s easy to imagine Shepard himself on the play’s front porch, staring into the past as the moon begins to rise.

“Ages” is part of a busy, ruminative winter for Mr. Shepard. “A Lie of the Mind” is receiving its first revival Off Broadway, directed by Ethan Hawke and opening on Thursday at the Acorn Theater. Last month Alfred A. Knopf published a new collection of his short stories, poems and narrative sketches, “Day Out of Days,” that developed from dozens of leather-bound notebooks he has carried with him over the years. And soon he will begin filming his latest movie, playing an older Butch Cassidy in “Blackthorn,” a kind of sequel set 15 years after the events of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

Having a new play and a major revival at the same time is an unusual experience for most writers, but it has been a profitable learning moment for Mr. Shepard: an opportunity to reflect on where he has been, and where he is today.

“I have to admit, with this experience with ‘Lie of the Mind,’ I’ve come to see it as a bit of an awkward play,” Mr. Shepard said. “If you were to talk about it in terms of cars, it’s like an old, broken-down Buick that you kind of hold together to just get down the road. All of the characters are in a fractured place, broken into pieces, and the pieces don’t really fit together. So it feels kind of rickety to me now.”

“Whereas this new play, ‘Ages,’ is like a Porsche,” he continued. “It’s sleek, it does exactly what you want it to do, and it can speed up but also shows off great brakes.”

The critics haven’t been entirely enamored of “Ages of the Moon”; when it opened in late January, Ben Brantley of The New York Times found that “the show doesn’t exert that unsettling visceral charge you associate with Mr. Shepard at his best.”

Still, the review continued, “it is a poignant and honest continuation of themes that have always been present in the work of one of this country’s most important dramatists, here reconsidered in the light and shadow of time past.”

Amid the introspection in “Ages of the Moon” is the largely unspoken but obvious role that alcohol has played in Ames’s dissipation.

In the interview Mr. Shepard said he got sober in late January 2009, a few weeks after he was stopped in central Illinois and charged with speeding and driving under the influence of alcohol. He pleaded guilty a month later and was ordered to pay a fine, finish an alcohol treatment program and perform community service.

“I continue to struggle with it,” Mr. Shepard said. “You sometimes use the excuse, ‘I’m a writer, dammit, I can do anything I want,’ but that doesn’t work. In my later plays, especially, alcohol is there - not as a moral issue, but as a disaster. And in my case, it’s a real disaster.”

These days Mr. Shepard is a grounded, hands-on presence in the rehearsal room. The actor Stephen Rea, who stars with Sean McGinley in “Ages,” said Mr. Shepard was like a technician, fine-tuning the dialogue with precision.

“He is very, very clear about what works and what doesn’t,” said Mr. Rea, who plays Ames. “Recently he added a short line because he knew a laugh was needed, and he knew we weren’t getting the laugh with the line that had been there.”

Mr. Rea declined to reveal the line, saying it would give away a key part of the play. “It’s just two words, but now we get a laugh,” he added. “Sam hears his plays musically, and the laughter is part of the music.”

Mr. Shepard himself describes his writing process as a composer might discuss creating a score. Both forms at their heart tell a story, through tempo and pacing and cadence, he said. In his work, conflict and violence, especially, take on an almost lyrical quality in the signature confrontations he stages among family members and friends.

“For me, playwriting is and has always been like making a chair,” Mr. Shepard said. “Your concerns are balance, form, timing, lights, space, music. If you don’t have these essentials, you might as well be writing a theoretical essay, not a play.”

“Violence and conflict are part of the music,” he added. “There’s no way to escape the fact that we’ve grown up in a violent culture, we just can’t get away from it, it’s part of our heritage. I think part of it is that we’ve always felt somewhat helpless in the face of this vast continent. Helplessness is answered in many ways, but one of them is violence.”

Neil Pepe, the artistic director of the Atlantic Theater Company, said he wanted to produce “Ages of the Moon” - the Atlantic’s first Shepard work - because he was drawn to its two characters as shades of the archetypal Shepard men who have dominated his plays for the last 45 years.

“It was so exciting to me that Sam was getting into this new territory of older male characters dealing with regrets and whether they went the right way,” Mr. Pepe said. “There’s a wonderful stillness and simplicity in these reflections, such as a speech that Sean has at the end about the play - it’s classic, beautifully executed Shepard.”

In that speech Byron discloses some shocking news to Ames, then comforts himself by recalling a recent, ruminative walk around his hometown. “Magpies were squawking in the cottonwoods, and a little black-haired boy was throwing rocks at an oil can,” Byron says.

Referring to his wife, he continues: “I carried her out by the highway, and we watched the cars and trucks sailing by, heading out to El Paso, south to Mexico, or limping into town with red dust from somewhere covering their windshields. We just stood there while they all floated by in every direction. One old man in a stake truck stopped, asked if we needed a ride. I told him no - we lived there.”

Mr. Shepard is already at work on a new play, one with 12 characters that will likely be longer than the 80-minute “Ages,” but not by much. He said that “Ages” and his short stories captured where he was as a writer today, more than 30 years after the fertile 1970s period when most Shepard scholars say he did his greatest work.

“There is this aura that the three-act play is the important one, it’s the one that you do to win the Pulitzer,” he said. “Some part of you falls for that, and then after a while you don’t fall for that. What I’m after is something different than supplying people with the idea that I’m writing an important play. At this point, I’m writing for me.”