By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
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 scream.
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.
A word about the venue which opened in January: Signature Theatre's new home, the gorgeous Pershing Square Center was designed by Frank Gehry, one of the world's most admired architects. There are four theatres, a bookstore, a café, a media wall, and a concierge desk, all within an airy, comfy and elegant space. It is the finest imaginable addition to the New York theatre.