11/24/2014 01:59 pm ET

'A Particle of Dread': Shepard's Oedipus At Cucamonga

The perils of parenthood are myriad and have been the subject of countless tragedies and comedies in the theater for over 2,500 years. Sam Shepard has explored the theme often, but rarely with such grim and cryptic result as in A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations), which opened last night at the Signature Theater.

It helps to brush up your Sophocles before entering. The parenthetical subtitle offers a key clue to understanding what is one of Shepard's most enigmatic plays. Each character has a counterpart from the Greek tragedies, and the gruesome events that take place in the southern California desert bear remarkable resemblance to those that plagued ancient Thebes.

On the surface, the play is a murder mystery. A certain Angel Langos, a Las Vegas drug kingpin, had been found dead along with his chauffeur and bodyguard on a lonely stretch of highway near Barstow. Their dismembered bodies had been run over 17 times by Langos's own car, which was later found abandoned at a liquor store in Cucamonga.

The murder, a cold case crime that may have occurred long ago, must be solved and the killer identified to lift a curse that has descended upon the city. It's an old story, and one that Shepard is a natural to tell. He pretty much follows the general outline of Oedipus Rex, but puts his own particular grisly and often humorous touch to Sophocles' tale of dread and woe.

The lights come up on Oedipus mopping blood in a white-tiled room that resembles nothing so much as an abattoir. He recounts his horrific childhood trauma of a spike being driven into his ankle and then being left to die hanging upside down from an olive tree.

The scene quickly changes to a butcher's shop where Uncle Del (cf. Delphic oracle) is putting viscera out to dry on a clothesline and casting bones to foretell the future. He is visited by Larry (cf. Laius) who consults with Del over his and his wife Jocasta's infertility. Del delivers the familiar prophesy that any child Larry and Jocasta produce will end up killing his father and marrying his mother. "You're better off barren," Del advises Larry. "Barren or dead."

The action swings backward and forward in time in no particular sequence. It moves between the scene of the crime, where CHiP's officer Harrington and his pathologist Randolph try to reconstruct the murder, to a bungalow on the edge of the desert where Otto (cf. Oedipus), in a wheelchair, and his wife Jocelyn (cf. Jocasta) read about the brutal slaying in the newspaper. The details seem to ring a bell in Otto's mind.

Otto is then visited by his daughter Annalee (cf. Antigone), who has some troubles of her own, including a husband who may have raped and killed the babysitter of her son, a child she later wants to get rid of. Monologues between these scenes provide further clues to what happened out in the Mojave along with a caution that discovering the truth may bring a dread worse than the murder.

These come from Oedipus himself, a Maniac of the Outskirts (cf. Herdsman), a Traveler (cf. Tiresias), and Larry/Langos. And as it turns out, of course, the truth can bring a whole passel of woes poor Oedipus never even dreamed of.

A Particle of Dread can be baffling, even for those attuned to Shepard's singular brand of storytelling. It is steeped in blood and horror and passion, all of which is couched in conversational chatter and interspersed with mundane trivialities. The references to Sophocles' great tragedy do not always follow a neat pattern, so that the audience has the sense of trying to put together a literary jigsaw puzzle with some of the pieces missing.

But there are poetic passages that can chill and excite. A Particle of Dread is probably a better play than the staging mounted by Nancy Meckler, an able director who has had great success with other Shepard plays and who first directed this production for Field Day in Derry, Northern Ireland. Much of the current staging runs on low energy, as though Meckler and her cast were performing a dry revival of an ancient Greek tragedy.

As Oedipus, Stephen Rea often seems simply to be reciting lines, though his scenes as Otto are more fully realized. Lloyd Hutchinson brings some downhome humor to Uncle Del and the Maniac. Jason Kolotouros ably portrays the slow-witted California Highway Patrol Officer Harrington, and Aidan Redmond delivers a credible reading of Larry/Langos/Laius.

Brid Brennan is a seductive Jocasta and a wary Jocelyn, and Judith Roddy conveys the essence of a distraught mother and daughter as Annalee and Antigone. And, as nearly always with Shepard, there is music, provided here by Neil Martin on cello and Todd Livingston on Dobro slide guitar playing Martin's original compositions.