Sam Shepard’s aesthetic has always been one of opacity. We are invited to watch, however hazily, as human desire systematically deconstructs the family unit, but we are by no means invited into that family or even offered a conduit through which we might develop a bond to character or situation. Instead we are shunned, like fools tapping on the aquarium glass, haughty enough to think the fish give a damn about our presence. But decades of Shepard’s work have shown how futile it is to turn our gaze away from his grotesque family portraits, and with good reason: his plays dare us to realize that they present our own lives, if only we had the guts to look deeply enough inward.
Shepard’s new play, HEARTLESS, world premiering now at New York’s beautiful new Signature Theatre Center, is about as “Shepardian” as OTHELLO is Shakespearean, as THE ICEMAN COMETH is O’Neillian. Featuring a contentious family, torrid love, mysterious secrets, imposing guilt, a lust for the frontier of the open road, and a staunch refusal to moor itself to a realist grounding, all dripping with darkly comic lyric poetry, HEARTLESS features all that intrigues and mystifies us about Shepard’s work. It is an American master doing what he does best.
The play opens with a desperate scream, encroaching from the wings to wake Roscoe (Gary Cole) and Sally (Julianne Nicholson) in adjacent twin beds. The scream becomes a sense of wonder and mystery for most of the first act, but mostly it is a question relegated to the play’s outskirts—some characters heard it, others say they did not, nobody really cares all that much. This is fitting for a cadre of lost and wandering souls with little to no actual interest in their journeys. Sally, 30, has recently begun a love affair with Roscoe, 65, and invited him to stay in her family home while he takes refuge from the wife and children he has abandoned. Sally’s sister Lucy (Jenny Bacon) is less welcoming of Roscoe, and concerned mostly with the medication regiment of the family’s elderly and ailing matriarch Mable (Lois Smith). Mable’s nurse Liz (Betty Gilpin) completes the puzzle of damaged souls doing little other than existing in a secluded LA penthouse overlooking the entire San Fernando Valley.
Intrigue begins when Mable unfolds to Roscoe the “whole story about Sally.” It turns out that when Sally was a child of about ten her heart began to fail and her life was saved by a transplant from a girl her age who had been murdered. Sally is now burdened with a sense of guilt and unworthiness, never quite sure why she got to live when her donor did not. This sense of cynical bewilderment defines Sally and her shallow relationships with Roscoe and her family. Lucy, meanwhile, does her best to preserve a sense of normality among the family—medicating her mother, encouraging Sally to take her medication, being suspicious of the imposing stranger—and Nurse Liz is a constant source of mystery. Intermittently mute and with a hazy past, Liz and her seductive beauty baffle Roscoe and seem always to be concealing something more, something the two sisters and their mother either fear, refuse, or simply don’t care to engage. Over the course of the play, we watch as the family’s loosely defined organizing thread grows increasingly frayed.
Like the inimitable Dodge of Shepard’s Pulitzer-winning BURIED CHILD (1979), Mable serves HEARTLESS as a chorus both aloof from and mildly disgusted at the trivialness of the other characters’ conflicts. She is the only character that sees (or cares to see) the big-picture, and her long, often meandering monologues are lyric parables for the others trapped in the claustrophobia of this secluded penthouse. Confined to Mable’s wheelchair throughout the play, Lois Smith’s presence resonates through a grizzled voice and penetrating gaze. Mable’s daughters initially describe her as delusional and feeble-minded, but she immediately defies them when she finally appears with her whip-smart interrogation of Roscoe and her commanding influence on the home. As Shepard writes a foggy sort of realism, he gives us in Mable a foggy Tiresias, a seer who may not know the specifics of the future but is certainly attune to the direction of the prevailing winds.
But one of HEARTLESS’s big questions is the degree to which certain progress towards the future matters. After encouraging her sister to take her medication, Lucy asks Sally, “You want to stay alive, don’t you?” to which Sally responds by singing a lilting tune of those words: “I want to stay alive…” But the tune is less an affirmation than it is an attempt by Sally to convince herself that life matters. Julianne Nicholson gives us a Sally with the constant cynical jouissance of having come so close to—and being ever on the precipice—of death.
Only once do we see real emotion out of Sally, when made by her sister to face her guilt of living with “a murdered girl’s heart,” and it is a jarring moment for both character and play. Sally seems to have worked hard to construct the emotional walls around her, and the play strives similarly to show us a family toiling to cleanse themselves of the grief attendant upon engagement with the everyday world. Sally’s tears belie both attempts. These tears might not deign to offer us a human connection to the play, but they show us where one could exist, if we are brave enough to embrace the grief of these damaged creatures.
As HEARTLESS reaches its most chaotic, Roscoe professes desperately that “I am just a visitor here, I’m innocent, I didn’t do anything,” but the play denies him, its other characters, or any of us such innocence. HEARTLESS opens with the original wound of a terrifying scream and moves forward as that wound grows into a grizzly scar. These characters do their best to avoid the wounds of family, love, dependence, and self-fulfillment, but their scars refuse to let them do so. Shepard’s work has always been deeply invested in excavating the chaos underlying the seeming order of our lives, and we miss its power if we let ourselves be turned away by its opacity. HEARTLESS might seem to distance itself from us in a surreal fog, but it nonetheless dares us to recognize the familiarity and timelessness of its “house full of whackos.”
By Sam Shepard
Directed by Daniel Aukin
August 7 – September 30, 2012
Signature Theatre Company
The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036