With one of his best plays opening in KC, here’s what made the late Sam Shepard great
For most of us a night at the theater means being entertained and, perhaps, uplifted.
A Sam Shepard play means subjecting yourself to the unknown, the dangerous. His is an outlaw’s voice, one that evoked powerful, unconventional and even frightening emotions. Watching a Sam Shepard play is like grabbing a rattlesnake by the tail and twisting and jerking for the next two hours to stay clear of its fangs.
Now Shepard’s “A Lie of the Mind,” in a Kansas City Actors Theatre production starting Sept. 13, could hardly be better timed. The Pulitzer-winning playwright and screen actor died in late July from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“Lie” — which is being directed by Cinnamon Schultz and features a Who’s Who of Kansas City actors (among them Gary Neal Johnson, Brian Paulette, Jan Rogge and Forrest Attaway) — is widely regarded as Shepard’s most mature and humane creation.
Wait a minute … Sam Shepard wrote plays?
Well, yes. Long before his rugged good looks made him a popular movie actor, Shepard was negotiating the outer limits of the American theater.
Most of us know him for the films.
He was a rawboned bachelor farmer in Terrence Malick’s 1978 “Days of Heaven” (his first movie role), test pilot Chuck Yeager in 1983’s “The Right Stuff” (for which he landed an Oscar nomination), a romantic veterinarian opposite Diane Keaton in 1987’s “Baby Boom,” a tough-but-troubled senior military officer in 2001’s “Black Hawk Down.” He gave us bad-tempered outlaw Frank James in 2007’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”
He didn’t have incredible range, but Shepard has an unmistakeable screen presence that millions of filmgoers came to appreciate.
And of course there was his long-term relationship with actress Jessica Lange, with whom he co-starred in 1982’s “Frances,” the story of troubled Golden Age movie actress Frances Farmer.
But the one/two punch of Shepard’s recent death and the upcoming local production of “A Lie of the Mind” has been triggering personal memories of my early days as The Star’s drama critic, and of how thoroughly Shepard shook up my staid ideas of theater.
His plays were angry, sullen and savage, but beneath that brusque surface ran mournful currents. One thing I came to expect from a Shepard play was a physical assault on the senses.
My first Shepard experience was the 1978 production of his Pulitzer-winning “Buried Child” that played off Broadway in Greenwich Village. The cast was packed with up-and-coming talent (Tom Noonan, Jay O. Sanders, Mary McDonnell), and the experience was like nothing I’d known.
This meandering study of a decaying family living on a barren Midwestern farm contained a scene so visceral it’s stuck with me for 40 years. Late in the show one of the characters — 20-year-old Vince, who is visiting the old farmstead with his city-bred girlfriend — returns home drunk and proceeds to hurl dozens of glass bottles across the stage, where they explode in thousands of shards.
This wasn’t fake stage glass. This was the real thing — empty soft drink, liquor and beer bottles that shattered noisily. The set designer had arranged for all this carnage to take place in a sort of chicken-wire enclosure to keep shards of glass from hitting the front-row customers, but the effect of this on-stage and very real violence was shocking and fascinating.
I’d come to expect that of Shepard.
One of the great moments in Shepard’s “True West” comes when a character kills a typewriter.
The play is about two brothers, the more-or-less “normal” Austin, who is an aspiring Hollywood screenwriter, and his con-artist sibling, Lee.
The belligerent Lee — convinced that he, too, can write a screenplay — sits down at a typewriter to pound out a script that will make him rich and famous. When he fails to make any progress — for one thing he’s chugging beers — Lee blames the typewriter and beats it to death with a golf club.
I saw “True West” in a 1984 mounting at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York with James Belushi and Gary Cole as the brawling brothers. As Belushi took batting practice with the old Underwood, audience members threw up their hands and covered their faces as keys and other typewriter parts broke off and were sent spinning into the seats.
(A few years later I had an opportunity to interview Belushi, and he recalled that Shepard demanded that the actor playing Lee actually consume real beer during the performance. As a result, the actor said, he was thoroughly intoxicated by the end of each night’s work.)
There’s a notorious moment in Shepard’s “Curse of the Starving Class” when an actor is required to urinate on stage. We’re not talking some pump-and-water contraption concealed in his pants. No, this was the Full Monty, with the character contemptuously hosing down the posters that make up his little sister’s school science project.
In the early ’80s Kansas City’s Theater League produced “Curse” in a tiny in-the-round theater off the lobby of the Midland. No audience member was more than three rows from the stage. Minds were blown at the sight of an actor relieving himself just a few feet away. (Perhaps they should have rented rain slickers at the door.)
And then there was “Fool for Love,” Shepard’s dark and disturbing love story about a man and woman who were already deep in the throes of sexual obsession when they learned they shared the same philandering father.
In the early ’80s it played at Circle Rep in Greenwich Village with Cathy Baker and Will Patton in the lead roles. What was amazing about “Fool” was the violence on display. Repeatedly the actors threw each other up against the walls of the set representing a cheap motel room, each collision registering with a deep, resonant boom.
After the performance I asked the stage manager about the play’s weird aural experience. He took me backstage, where the entire rear of the set was lined with bass drums. Whenever a human body was bounced off the set’s walls, the drums registered a sort of subwoofer rumble. The drums were the playwright’s idea, he explained.
Those assaults on an audience’s senses — some might call them juvenile; I found them bracing — were toned down by the time Shepard wrote “A Lie of the Mind” in 1985. But if Shepard no longer relied on physical shock tactics, he’d replaced them with emotional ones.
The story wavers between two families on opposite sides of a troubled marriage. A young wife, Beth, may have brain damage after being mercilessly beaten by her husband, Jake. She is being cared for by her angry kin. Meanwhile the love-tormented Jake takes refuge with his own clan.
Against this ghastly central situation the play examines how both characters have been molded by their dysfunctional upbringings, how their parents and siblings bear at least some responsibility for the ghastly turn of events.
“All that physical damage in the early plays doesn’t happen on stage in ‘Lie,’” said director Schultz. “It all happens offstage.
“But the damage is still there in the characters’ emotions.”
With “Lie,” Schultz said, Shepard offered a narrative structure largely missing in his earlier work.
“Shepard always hated endings. He’s written that most of the time he ends the play just because at some point the audience has to leave.
“But with ‘A Lie of the Mind’ there’s a definite journey going on. I’ve found it easier for me to follow than some of the other work; it’s really very carefully constructed.”
Schultz also believes that this is Shepard’s most personal play, the one that most closely reflects his own background.
“In his plays he often wrote about alcoholic fathers. He had one. And Shepard admitted that he’d had troubles with alcohol. The character of Jake is loosely based on that. Shepard was never known to abuse women, but a lot of Jake’s character and obsessions reflect the man who wrote him.”
The original New York production of “Lie” was particularly noteworthy for the on-stage presence of the bluegrass band the New Red Clay Ramblers, who periodically interrupted the narrative to perform a dozen or so songs that commented on the action.
Having the band live on stage was Shepard’s idea; the music gave the production the feel of an epic folk ballad. Of course, the music nearly doubled the running time of the show, which clocked in at four hours.
The Kansas City production won’t have a live band on stage (except for a brief appearance before the opening night performance Sept. 16), but the group Country Duo (Kasey Rausch, Marco Pascolini) has recorded several original songs that will be played during the performance.
One of the most salient features of “Lie,” Schultz said, is a hopefulness rarely present in Shepard’s earlier work.
“The play has a way of explaining, if not excusing, everybody’s issues. When you first meet these characters you find yourself asking, ‘Who’s the good guy here?’ By the end you realize that everyone has flaws, but not everybody is beyond redemption. “
And then there’s the dialogue. Schultz said she never really appreciated it until she began rehearsing.
“To me his dialogue is like music,” she said. “He wanted to be a rock and roll star.” (In the late ’60s Shepard played drums with the rock band the Holy Modal Rounders.) “And he wrote dialogue like music, sometimes with a poetic/melodic thing, and at other times with this frenetic drive.”
It’s been difficult for Schultz to step away from the play since her husband, actor Brian Paulette, will be playing the furious/melancholy Jake.
Which raises the question: Can the couple able to disengage from the play at workday’s end?
“Well, Brian’s been lifting weights, which is something he didn’t used to do. I think it takes out some of the aggression when he gets home at night.”
“A Lie of the Mind” will play Sept. 13 through Oct. 1 at H&R Block City Stage Theater in Union Station. See kcactors.org or call 816-235-6222.