With a new show and a revival in the wings, it's time
for a rediscovery of Shepard
Seems like old times, if your idea of old times includes
primal American Gothic family mythology, estranged
brothers with dual identities, twisted vistas of cowboy
country, exiled desert-rat fathers, giddy bemusement
with kitchen appliances and the absurdly comforting
menace of food fights.
What I mean is that Sam Shepard is back in town. More
precisely, I mean the town is suddenly back in Sam
Shepard-land, a deeply scary, often deliriously
entertaining place where the open road belongs to
outlaws and the outlaws just might be your relatives.
On Wednesday, a new play called "Ages of the Moon" has
its American premiere at the Atlantic Theater Company.
This is the production from Dublin's Abbey Theatre, with
Stephen Rea ("The Crying Game") and Sean McGinley
playing old friends at a bar. And previews begin Friday
for The New Group's revival of his sprawling 1985 drama,
"A Lie of the Mind," directed by Ethan Hawke, with a
cast that includes Keith Carradine, Laurie Metcalf and
There was a time, not so long ago, when work by
America's most charismatic and elusive Pulitzer
Prize-winning movie star was a major presence in New
York theater. His three big late-'70s family plays -
"Curse of the Starving Class," "Buried Child" and "True
West" - carved out a rugged territory that influenced a
But Shepard has never been so easily domesticated.
Despite his identifiable movie self as Chuck Yeager in
"The Right Stuff" and his longtime relationship with
Jessica Lange, his plays are hardly easy glamour. His
scripts have been star magnets, but the characters are
dangerous. When he writes about families, they aren't
the kind celebrated in political speeches. The language
has the stark, dry irony of jazz and the raucous
surprise of good rock and roll. As Don Shewey, Shepard's
excellent biographer, puts it, "A typical Sam Shepard
play is the theatrical equivalent of an optical
illusion. It messes with your mind."
In fact, Shepard did not have a play on Broadway until
Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre brought its terrific
revival of "Buried Child," his Pulitzer-winning
tragicomedy, in 1996. And that failed to attract a broad
audience. Although he had written more than 50 plays
since he flourished in the off Off-Broadway cauldron of
the '60s, he didn't have a Broadway hit until "True
West" was revived in 2000 with Philip Seymour Hoffman
and John C. Reilly alternating as the Cain-and-Abel
brothers in a wildly enjoyable production directed by
Matthew Warchus ("God of Carnage"). John Malkovich and
Gary Sinise burst onto the world in this play in 1982,
but that was Off-Broadway.
The Signature Theatre, which devotes an entire season to
a single playwright, had a rare misfire with its attempt
to mainstream early Shepard in 1997. In 2001, the
Signature produced "The Late Henry Moss," a mildly
enjoyable retread of the Shepard canon, which starred
Hawke as one of the renegade brothers. Three years later
came the underappreciated "God of Hell," which I loved -
an apocalyptic satirical tragedy that starred Tim Roth
as a Washington agribusiness devil visiting a dairy farm
run by Randy Quaid. Last year saw another small work,
"Kicking a Dead Horse," starring Rea as a grumpy art
dealer whose horse dies while he searches for
"authenticity" in the Old West.
I think people expect a Shepard play to look somehow
like Sam Shepard, the movie star. He did appear in his
own work in his early days downtown. In 1971, he and
lover Patti Smith starred together in "Cowboy Mouth,"
which they co-wrote, and he was a drummer in Bob Dylan's
Rolling Thunder Revue in 1976.
But Shepard hadn't been on the New York stage for 30
years when he was coaxed back in 2004 to appear in Caryl
Churchill's "A Number," the 65-minute exploration of
cloning and the meaning of identity. He played a widower
whose son learns there are "a number" of others just
like him. Shepard, a hawk-headed giant with a long crew
cut and the scrubbed outdoor face of a farmer, seemed
like a lean, long-boned original.
And so he is. He is famously private. He and Lange have
two grown children - Hannah Jane, 25, and Samuel Walker,
23. He has a son, Jesse Mojo, from an early marriage.
She has a daughter, Aleksandra, with Mikhail
Baryshnikov. Shepard, born 67 years ago in Fort
Sheridan, Ill., was moved from South Dakota to Utah,
Florida and Guam before his military family landed on an
avocado ranch in Duarte, Calif.
He escaped to New York with a traveling theater company,
then escaped New York theater for a long creative period
at San Francisco's Magic Theater, then escaped Hollywood
by owning horse farms, including one in Lange's
Minnesota hometown. His last published address - from a
DUI arrest report in Central Illinois last January - is
He just published his latest collection of short
stories, "Day Out of Days." He co-stars in "Brothers,"
Jim Sheridan's movie about the war in Afghanistan, and
plays the patriarch of a Nashville music clan in "Tough
Trade," a TV series on EPIX, a new pay-cable station.
And we have two plays. "Lie," which ran almost four
hours in 1985, and the brief "Ages of the Moon."
Shepard's theater gets more and more concise, more like
a cowboy Samuel Beckett. As he once said to a pesky
journalist, "The only really intimidating thing in life
is a bad horse." Dare you not to believe him.