You’ve got to understand what Sam Shepard meant to us.
There are those who know Shepard as a movie star and those who discovered him, earlier on, when he won the Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child; but for those of us who first watched his plays in tiny studio theaters above a bar or in converted churches when there was still a counterculture, he was our playwright.
Shepard’s plays were like no others–fresh, hip, antiheroic, free from the tired old psychology of Tennessee Williams and the Actors Studio. By no means political, they nevertheless made us aware of the myths that shaped our behavior as Americans. And if you knew where playwriting had been, with all those precious attempts to repoeticize the drama, and knew what was happening with psychedelics–people beginning to listen to those half-heard perceptions passing through their heads–you knew he had created an inevitably right form of drama.
He also meant a lot to people in the Bay Area, where, in the waning days of the counterculture, he settled for the better part of a decade. That was about the same amount of time Eugene O’Neill lived here, and like O’Neill, Shepard wrote many of his best plays here. He’s been quoted as saying his years as playwright-in-residence at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, where he premiered Angel City, Buried Child, Fool for Love and True West, were “the most productive time of my theater life.”
But then, having given by his presence a certain validation to regional theater in the forever insecure “world class” city of San Francisco, he pulled up stakes and went to work as an actor in Hollywood movies. This at about the same time he was criticizing the hell out of the corruption of the creative process in La-La Land, in True West. And not only did he abandon our ever so artistically pure Bay Area for Hollywood, but he ended up making a long line of godawful movies, like Dash and Lilly, Purgatory and Baby Boom, pictures you wouldn’t have thought a man of his literary sophistication and discrimination would touch.
In the past decade, Shepard seems to have returned to theater, though these have largely been years of successful revivals and very mixed and often not very warm responses to his recent work. The result is a lingering fear that Shepard, once the Wunderkind of American drama, has treated his tremendous gift far too carelessly.
Which brings us to The Late Henry Moss, the first premiere of a Shepard play by the Magic Theatre in seventeen years (at Theatre on the Square in San Francisco). The very best playwright of his generation was able to interest Nick Nolte and Sean Penn in the play–two of the very best actors in America, actors who time and time again have shown seriousness in their choice of material. That heightened expectations of the old exhilaration: a return of the real Sam Shepard, the poet, sure-footed, bringing you face to face with perceptions only half-acknowledged. And not only might Shepard be back at the top of his form, but this was an older and, one hoped, more deeply seeing Shepard, writing about the ultimate subject, death.
Shepard had left the Bay Area saying he was “no longer young,” and now here we were so much further along. (Seventeen years; is it possible?) The golden boy is 57 and has lost both his mother and the father who was the source of so much of the anger and unhappiness in his plays. As he says at the end of Cruising Paradise, his 1996 collection of tales containing versions of both those deaths, “Everything was in place.”
In The Late Henry Moss, the father’s death is a mystery. One son, Ray (Sean Penn), seeks the truth about it and about his father and the family’s past. The other, Earl (Nick Nolte), his opposite, seeks to hide the truth from himself and others. But from a cab driver (Woody Harrelson) and a concerned neighbor, Esteban (the delightful Cheech Marin), and in flashbacks, we discover that the father (James Gammon) went on a drunken fishing trip with a mysterious Native American woman (a very strong Sheila Tousey). Psychically tougher and more powerfully vital than any man in the play, she constantly throws it in the old man’s face that he is dead in life. Ultimately she helps him really die. As she does, we discover Earl’s part in that evening and his earlier act of betrayal when the family broke apart.
As the brothers, Nolte and Penn do what they do. Nolte drags on a cigarette, the tip just emerging from his fist, knocks down a shot, passes a hand through his hair and plays ravaged, weighed-down inner suffering with great naturalness. Equally real for the most part, Penn is intense, like a cat about to spring, and is ace, as you might expect, with Shepard’s insolent threats and threatening silences. Both know to goose the energy with dynamic gestures, but both can also be a little small at times, as if they’re expecting a camera to magnify the drama of facial nuances.
Unlike Woody Harrelson, who turns in a hugely inventive performance as the cab driver, finding fifty different ways to physicalize essentially the same action, what Nolte and Penn do ultimately begins to seem like more of the same. But here I think the problem is the writing, and with great disappointment I report that Shepard hasn’t returned to his former powers with this play. He simply hasn’t given Penn and Nolte sufficient material to work with. There’s not a whole lot to the characters, and their relationship lacks the continuously rich evolution of True West. I suspect this underwriting is part of what makes the ending seem inflated and overwrought. The fact that what is revealed about the family’s past isn’t all that compelling doesn’t help.
There are of course many joyously perverse, off-the-wall Shepard lines like “Every death has to be reported these days–unless you kill someone” and (to bumbling funeral attendants) “That’s my father you just dropped.” His typically audacious choices as writer and director are also very much in evidence, as when he leaves a giant, unsettling, unfurnished empty space in the set, stage right, or when Sheila Tousey picks Marin up and swings him back and forth like a doll, or when Harrelson leaps on top of a refrigerator, a meat cleaver in hand for protection.
Where most directors move actors about the stage to articulate relationships and tell the story of the play and create an overall mood with lights and textures, it’s as though Shepard does all that and, with the help of designers Andy Stacklin (set), Anne Militello (lights) and Christine Dougherty (costumes), also creates pictures on stage that have the strange beauty of Edward Hopper’s–only with a palette more like Wayne Thiebaud’s. Shepard also moves into a more overt and equally beautiful surrealism, as when Tousey’s head and arms appear otherwise disembodied over the edge of a bathtub.
In fact, Shepard seems to be trying to move into new territory. If Buried Child was Shepard’s Ibsen play (and Ibsen parody) and Fool for Love his Strindberg, The Late Henry Moss may be a kind of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, an attempt at closure with his father and his death.
The way he manages that attempt shows Shepard still of a countercultural bent, embracing the counterculture’s characteristic antidote, inclusion of the Other. The setting is no longer a desert wasteland but the Southwest, the Latin/Native American West, New Mexico, where Shepard first moved when he left the Bay Area, and where a brooding primitivism makes you feel you’ve crossed into a foreign country.
After years of delineating the underside of macho, in Henry Moss Shepard brings onto his stage a Native woman, sensuous, with a mythic dimension and definitely Other. She brings with her clear vision, reverence for the dead, ritual, dance and a nonstereotypical way of being female. And it is she who–not maternally, but with great hardness–brings Henry to his death and closure to his suffering and macho failings.
Ultimately, however, this closure doesn’t bring about a sense of reconciliation. The account of Shepard’s father’s funeral in Cruising Paradise is tender, full of pity and acceptance, and in it Shepard captures a very real sense of the grief that sneaks up unexpectedly (even when you harbor great anger toward the deceased). He chokes up reading the Bible over his father’s grave and can’t go on.
Henry Moss is a different work, and there’s no reason Shepard should re-create the same emotional landscape, but given the subject matter there’s a surprising lack of those feelings. Esteban is upset by Henry’s death; Ray stands mutely by the corpse for a moment. In the final analysis, though, Shepard is extremely hard on his characters, father and sons. You might say, unforgiving. The failings and betrayals are a barrier he can’t seem to get past. And in the end, the play never deals with the grief and pity that must be dealt with if reconciliation is to come from an encounter with the dead.