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"Heartless" Review: Sam Shepard's EKG on the Human Condition

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The heart has always been a vital organ in the plays of Sam Shepard, and never more so than in Heartless, a poetic, enigmatic and often humorous exploration of the human failure to connect with one another that is the playwright's most inspired and imaginative work in years. It is being staged with mostly excellent results at the new Signature Theater complex.

Nothing, of course, is quite what it seems in Shepard's plays, and Heartless defies any easy classification or even definition of subject matter. Shepard's world examines the ambiguities of human relationships, the internal and ill-defined conflicts that, despite the angry verbal jousting they spawn, will forever remain unresolved. Leaving the theater, one may ask "what was that all about?" But the question alone diminishes Shepard's accomplishment in this lyrical and mysterious play.

Heartless opens with a piercing scream -- a primordial cri de coeur that carries all the pain, suffering, and despair of the human condition and that will be repeated both vocally and silently at various intervals. The scream awakens a young woman, Sally, and an older man, Roscoe, sleeping in separate beds. Roscoe goes off to walk his dog and pick up some jelly-filled donuts; Sally begins a conversation with a ghost.

The noise has been heard elsewhere in the house, which is perched on the edge of a precipice that plunges into the Los Angeles valley below. Lucy appears bearing a tray of medicines and a syringe. Lucy is Sally's older sister and the hypo is for their mother, Mable, who is wheelchair bound after a fall from a tree she had climbed to watch a James Dean movie at a drive-in left her partly paralyzed and who, it is reported, is only occasionally compos mentis. Mable is also attended by Elizabeth, a nurse who is either from England or Nebraska and who may or may not be mute.

In the opening introductions the audience learns that Roscoe is newly separated from his wife, was a 1960's druggie in New York, and is now a literature professor specializing in Cervantes. Sally invited him to crash at her house and in return he is reluctantly taking part in a documentary she is shooting on a camcorder. At first glance, Lucy appears to be the mousy sibling used to being bossed around by her sassy sister.

Is any of this true? As always with Shepard, the full story is hidden behind a façade of acceptable social intercourse. The lies of these particular minds begin to become clear with the entrance of Mable. Far from befuddled, she is in full possession of a rapier intellect that doesn't miss a thing. She grills Roscoe like a police detective interrogating a murder suspect, bullies her daughters, and demands "unconditional loyalty" from Liz, the nurse.

In the course of ensuing scenes, the real and surreal become mixed to the point it is difficult to distinguish between them. Dark secrets are revealed, and it would be remiss to betray them here. Throughout, however, Shepard's poetic sense of the absurdities of human congress is pitch perfect and the drama never flags.

Lois Smith, one of the theater's brightest lights, is superb as the acid-tongued and combative Mable. Few actors can fire the machine-gun bullets that fly from Shepard's typewriter with such deadly accuracy. Even fewer can make the rhetorical question "What are mothers for?" sound so menacing. Jenny Bacon is excellent as Lucy, finding most of the humor in the play and turning the evolution of her character into a small tour de force. Betty Gilpin, in her starched nurse's whites, is first-rate as Liz, using her silence through most of the play to build the mystery of her symbiotic connection to Sally.

If there are slight inconsistent notes in the director Daniel Aukin's taut and well-paced staging, they come from Julianne Nicholson's portrayal of Sally and Gary Cole's as Roscoe. While Nicholson mostly finds the fury that permeates Sally's very being, there are some scenes in which it comes across more petulant than enraged, the jagged edges to her character sanded smooth. Cole, despite Roscoe's harsh background and suppressed anger, seems at the outset more like an aging lifeguard or tennis instructor at a Malibu country club. Well-groomed and polite to a fault, when he goes for coffee one almost expects him to return with a Starbucks bag.
Each actor, however, has fine moments. Nicholson is quietly moving, for example, in her monologue about the pain the unusual circumstances of her being alive bring her, and Cole is riveting in an animated final scene celebrating the vagabond on the lam from life. Eugene Lee's set -- two brass beds, a patio table and chairs on the thrust, and a steeply raked climb to the drop-off at the rear -- serves the play admirably.