SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. Va., July 19, 2013 − Sad to say, but the one genuinely wobbly play in this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival was penned by one of America’s finest living playwrights, Sam Shepard. His recent play, “Heartless,” is brought to the stage in Shepherdstown by a courageous cast of actors who do their best. But they still can’t manage to make much out of the playwright’s shapeless, yet occasionally intriguing mess of a play.
All the Sam Shepard elements are present in this play: a dysfunctional, volatile family; the threat of violence or worse hiding behind every corner; and the sheer delight nearly every character takes in tearing the others down. The Shepard world is a lonely world where nothing is ever likely to go right.
What makes “Heartless” a bit unusual, however, is the fact that it’s primarily about women rather than men. That’s a promising switch to an extent, particularly in a Sam Shepard play. Except that by the end of the play, you’re not exactly sure that Mr. Shepard, even circa the age of 70, can actually grasp who and what a woman even is.
“Heartless” lacks a linear plot, and, while grounded in apparent realism, doesn’t even stick very much to that. The play’s ostensible main character, having cheated death once, jumps off a roof in the middle of the proceedings. But, like a Warner Brothers cartoon character, she saunters back onstage in one piece shortly thereafter.
Personae morph, change personalities, then drift back again. You try to engage with the characters, but just when you think you get it, they change into something else, at least figuratively. The play’s two acts are simply a hodge-podge of confusion with no apparent meaning. Or at least no apparent meaning for this critic.
The premise of the play is quite interesting. A few minutes into the action, we notice that late twenty-something Sally (Margot White) has a scar down her middle from roughly the collarbone to the navel. We soon learn that she’d received a heart translplant not long after her birth and seems to have been haunted ever since by the ghost of the donor whose heart still beats within her. I.e., the play’s title is actually both a pun and a metaphor. That’s a promising start.
So is the fact that she’s currently bunking at her pad in L.A. with an aging professor, sixty something Roscoe (Michael Cullen). If you believe him, he’s a Cervantes specialist who for some reason has split from his wife and family half a continent away, maybe to find himself, a popular sporting event that most people in California seem pursue with great avidity.
This would still be relatively standard family fare save for the fact that the L.A. pad actually belongs to Sally’s batty banshee of a mother, the supposedly disabled Mabel (Kathleen Butler). She is, in turn, being cared for by her bitter older daughter Lucy (Cassie Beck) who proclaims her selflessness and virtue early and often like a professional Democrat.
Adding to the fun, most of the drudgery of Mabel’s care is assigned to a fragile, delicate, and apparently mute nurse, Liz (Susannah Hoffman). The stage is set, the scenario is complete.
But pity poor Roscoe. The only male in this confused and possibly lethal female mix he’s clearly expecting at least a guilt-free affair with Sally, if only to take his mind off the mess he’s left back at home. But he obviously never expected to be dumped into a menagerie of dysfunctional harpies and made part of a “reality” documentary that Sally has decided to film whether anyone wants her to or not.
This constant annoyance is, perhaps, the playwright’s satirical wink at the current generation. Like Sally’s mindless filming of useless trivia, their obsessive iPhone documentation of every life detail frames a sadly logical conclusion to their Boomer parents’ collective wallow in the metaphorical tar pit of narcisissm.
There’s no real beginning to the chaos here and no real conclusion to it. The real and unreal mix together, characters seem to change places even though they don’t. In the late innings, we even begin to wonder, after a brief display of graphic evidence, whether the mysterious Liz, who also begins to talk, is actually Sally’s secret doppelgänger. Or perhaps might really be Sally while Sally is actually Liz’ heart.
Confused? We were. And likely the playwright wants it that way, although what we learn from this morass is virtually nothing. In this play, there are neither mileposts nor goalposts.
What we wind up with is a small entourage of talented actors who valiantly try to make us care, at least to some extent, about a bunch of idiotic, edgy, and downright depraved characters who, real or imaginary, likely need to be taken out back and shot. But we never get that satisfaction.
Hat tips abound for the valiant cast, particularly Michael Cullen whose Roscoe, pathetic though he may be, at least represents the waning power of the rational in this play. We can’t blame either Mr. Cullen or the rest of the cast, after all, for the material they’ve been forced to slog through to the bitter end.
Another vigorous hat tip goes to Margot White. Brought on to replace an injured Robyn Cohen just before opening night, she’d already not only learned her part but embodied it the following Wednesday when we attended this production, needing only a look at the script to hold together her long Act II soliloquy. To have learned the key part of Sally so quickly and so well is impressive to begin with. But to have embodied a supremely weird character so fully in so short a time falls just short of miraculous.
The other players give it a go as well, particularly Kathleen Butler as virtual Medusa Mom Mabel. But the play itself still feels like a half-hearted attempt to Make a Statement, except that no one except, perhaps, the playwright really knows what that statement might be.
Ed Herendeen directs this psychological soup with such skill and professionalism that at times it comes dangerously close to cohering for a few minutes. But in the end, we are still left with a dramatic mess that, while fitfully entertaining, certainly doesn’t come close to reprising the frissons that are nearly always present in Sam Shepard’s best work.
Well, you can’t win ‘em all.
Rating: * (One out of five stars.)
For tickets, directions and information on this and other CATF plays, visit the CATF website here.
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