Sam Shepard's Identity Dance

By Shewey, Don | American Theatre, July-August 1997 | Go to article overview

Sam Shepard's Identity Dance


Shewey, Don, American Theatre


The midlife questions hounding the movie star playwright are laid end to end in a mixed-bag, all-Shepard season.

Since 1991, the Signature Theatre Company in New York has been devoting its entire season to reconsidering a single playwright's body of work. In the past, artistic director James Houghton's choice of playwrights to honor has been undeniably worthy, yet the seasons Signature produced didn't so much alter as confirm the way we think about these writers. Edward Albee? Good playwright, an American master. Horton Foote? Solid craftsman. Adrienne Kennedy? Fascinating and formally challenging.

This year Signature turned its attention to Sam Shepard, and the results have been erratic, unpredictable, perverse, surprising, unnerving - which is to say, a very interesting season indeed.

For one thing, the gems of the season have been terrific stagings of three tiny and extravagantly disparate one-act plays: Chicago, which Shepard wrote in one day and which earned him his first Obie award in 1965; The Sad Lament of Pecos Bill on the Eve of Killing His Wife, a wacky 20-minute musical he wrote for the Bicentennial; and Killer's Head, a 10-minute monologue/conceptual-art piece. The newest work on hand was also the slightest: When the World Was Green (A Chef's Fable), a collaboration between Shepard and Joseph Chaikin commissioned for the Olympic Arts Festival last summer in Atlanta.

When the season lineup was first announced, conspicuously absent were any of the semi-autobiographical family plays for which Shepard is best known. This bold and brave strategy fell by the wayside, however, when Shepard failed to deliver the new play he'd promised as season finale, forcing Signature to schedule in its place Curse of the Starving Class - an excellent but hardly neglected Shepard triumph. Action, the minor masterpiece that I secretly hoped would be the discovery of the season, wasn't, thanks to a misconceived production. And the show everybody hoped would be a long-running Off-Broadway hit, a revised version of The Tooth of Crime (subtitled "Second Dance"), was an unmitigated disaster - yet Shepard's rewrite contained ideas I'm still thinking about, and it had the most to say about the state of the art of Sam Shepard.

"Something's been coming to me lately about this whole question of being lost," Shepard wrote to Chaikin in 1983 from Iowa, where he was shooting the film Country with Jessica Lange. "It only makes sense to me in relation to an idea of one's identity being shattered under severe personal circumstances - in a state of crisis where everything that I've previously identified with in myself suddenly falls away. A shock state, I guess you might call it. I don't think it makes much difference what the shock itself is - whether it's a trauma to do with a loved one or a physical accident or whatever - the resulting emptiness or aloneness is what interests me. Particularly to do with questions like home? family? the identification of others over time? people I've known who are now lost to me even though still alive?"

At the time, Shepard was simply staking out the territory he and Chaikin would explore in their third collaboration, The War in Heaven. Yet that one letter alone contains seeds - especially the brooding about identity - that would eventually bear fruit in his subsequent plays A Life of the Mind, States of Shock, Simpatico, the overhauled Tooth of Crime and When the World Was Green.

The two characters in Green are an old man on death row for murder and a young woman who comes to interview him for a newspaper story. "How did this all begin?" she asks. "There was an insult 200 years ago," he says. Because of this insult seven generations back, the Old Man's father pointed out to him when he was five years old the cousin it was his duty to kill. The Old Man tracked his cousin Carl for many years, became head chef of his favorite restaurant in New Orleans and finally poisoned his potatoes. …

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