15 October 2012


The cast of Heartless. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Sam Shepard’s plays often address the subject of family and all their dysfunctions. This is the case with his latest work, Heartless, which I saw last month at the Signature Theatre. 
Aspiring filmmaker Sally, sporting a rather dramatic scar down her front (the result of a heart transplant as a young girl), arrives home in the hills somewhere high above Los Angeles with her latest boyfriend in tow, the decidedly older Roscoe, an expert on Cervantes who has left his wife. There Roscoe meets Sally’s bitter sister, Lucy; her mother’s beautiful mute nurse, Elizabeth; and mother Mabel who is confined to a wheelchair. Roscoe is drawn into the family’s disturbed lives where emotions are laid bare and the truth is often unclear.
In fact, the play is sometimes unclear, leaving unanswered questions like is one of the characters a ghost? Where do the two characters who leave together wind up? And what happens to the dog?  Although at times I wasn't sure what the truth was, I enjoyed Heartless nonetheless.
The cast was strong with Julianne Nicholson displaying an awkward unease as Sally, a woman who has always felt uncomfortable in her own body, and Gary Cole as poor Roscoe appearing more and more bewildered as normal social niceties disintegrate into rants and accusations.

Jenny Bacon was superb as older sister Lucy, bound to the house by a sense of loyalty to her mother. Her deadpan delivery with a halting cadence was both amusing and unnerving while Betty Gilpin was just plain eerie as the mute nurse. In one scene she expressed her feelings with an exhausting, long silent scream. In the next scene she is heard singing, which begs the question, why are we told she's mute? 

And then there was Lois Smith as Mabel. There are many plays filled with great matriarchs (think Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill). Mabel is a force to be reckoned with who spares no feelings. From her wheelchair, hands twisted, she gives forth her opinion on everything from Roy Rogers to her dislike of coffee. Smith was marvellous to watch. Hard and cutting, it was difficult to think that this was the same woman who played the beloved Gran on True Blood.

In one of the final scenes, Mabel explains how she came to be crippled. Apparently when she was younger, she fell out of a tree that she had climbed trying to get a closer look at a film playing at the nearby drive-in. The film was East of Eden, which in real life Smith stared in with James Dean. In an interview Smith said that when Sam Shepard was told about Smith’s connection to the film his response was “spooky.” Perhaps a fitting word to describe some of the characters in the play.

Heartless closed last month but to read more about it, check out the Signature Theatre’s site here.

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