The writer returns to his theater home in San
Francisco with a new chapter in his examination of
fathers, sons and paranoia.
SAN FRANCISCO — Halloween Day 2000. Outside Theatre on
the Square on Post Street, a woman sporting a French
maid outfit trots up the sidewalk with a couple of
Draculas and a faux homeless man. Nearby a genuine
homeless man looks up from his fragment of bagel,
Inside, away from the sun, Sam Shepard and company are
wading deep into rehearsals for "The Late Henry Moss,"
which opens Nov. 14. The wood-paneled hallway near the
tiny, second-story box office is dark and shadowy and,
Halloween-wise, a little more like it.
Lunch break. Nick Nolte, with the voice that launched a
thousand gargles, eases through the door on crutches and
makes his way toward the elevator. A minute later, Sean
Penn, who plays Nolte's brother, whips the doors open
and bounds down the stairs as if staring down invisible
track hurdles. A few other rehearsal denizens file out,
and then comes the playwright, who is also the director.
Five minutes later at a nearby diner, the waitress makes
herself at home, plopping down on Shepard's side of the
She has two questions. "You decided what you want? Who
is that guy?"
"Which guy?" Shepard asks.
"The one over there."
"Jim Gammon, you mean? With the hat?" It's Shepard's
longtime cohort James Gammon, a regular on the San
Francisco-based television show "Nash Bridges," as is
Cheech Marin. Both Marin and Gammon are in "The Late
Henry Moss," along with Penn and Nolte, Woody Harrelson
and Sheila Tousey.
"Very famous actor," Shepard says, smiling. "Go get his
For Shepard, who turned 57 over the weekend, "The Late
Henry Moss" represents his highest-profile theatrical
venture since "A Lie of the Mind" 15 years ago.
The project has brought the Illinois-born military brat
back to one of his formative artistic homes. Shepard's
association with the Magic Theatre launched many a
Shepard premiere, from the wilds of "Angel City" (1976)
and "Ianacoma" (1977) to the more straightforward and
widely traveled "Buried Child" (1978), "True West"
(1980) and "Fool for Love" (1983).
The geography of these works ranges from urban Los
Angeles to a coma state (no jokes, now) to a
Southwestern roadside motel to the farmland of Illinois.
But they're all part of the same lie of the mind, the
same comically desolate and bruising terrain.
"At first it was kind of shocking to be back here,"
Shepard says of his Magic return. "But now I feel better
about it. Twenty-five years later, you know? Very
strange. A lot of history. In a way it feels like you
never left, and in another way it feels like you were
never there." As he wrote in "True West": Time stands
still when you're having fun.
Into the Past to Probe Characters' 'Father Issues'
Earlier this year in New York, a revived "True West"
proved a phenomenon, with John C. Reilly and Philip
Seymour Hoffman alternating in the roles of Mojave
Desert rat Lee and fledgling Hollywood screenwriter
Austin--brothers waging mortal combat in mom's suburban
Los Angeles kitchen.
Shepard once described L.A. as a "sprawling, demented
snake . . . its fanged mouth wide open, eyes blazing,
paralyzed in a lunge of pure paranoia." His latest work,
"The Late Henry Moss," takes place farther east, but the
atmosphere's no less paranoid. In the New Mexico desert
adobe home where Henry Moss (Gammon) has died, a reunion
of his sons Earl (Nolte) and Ray (Penn) takes place.
Shepard's latest set of uneasy siblings is dealing with
what might be called "father issues," here augmented by
a neighbor (Marin), a cabby (Woody Harrelson) who saw
Moss just before he died, and Moss' lover (Tousey, who
appeared in the Public Theatre workshop before this full
production). The old man's story, and that of his boys,
unfolds by way of flashbacks, the first extensive use
thereof in Shepard's career.
By contrast, this isn't Shepard's first father figure
named Moss. While living in New York, Shepard
wrote a 1969 one-act called "The Holy Ghostly," a
standoff between a murderous "bohemian" son and his
mewling, scraggly father. Years ago Shepard knew a rodeo
guy "who had a cattle dog named Moss. I guess I always
loved that name."
When Shepard laughs, it's surprising because his easy,
well-worn, tough-guy presence seems at odds with the
staccato chuckle. It's a character actor's laugh stuck
inside a leading man.
Not for nothing did Shepard write a story (in the
"Cruising Paradise" collection) called "The Real Gabby
Hayes," which obliquely but tellingly deals with
Shepard's relationship with his father.
"The Late Henry Moss" is a three-act exploration of
family secrets, blood rivalry and other classic themes
favored by Shepard. "It more or less directly comes from
the death of my father, which was in 1983," he says.
"The first peripheral stab at it was with 'A Lie of the
Mind,' with the father's ashes and the folded flag."
(The late father didn't actually appear.) Only now,
Shepard says, was he "willing to put the corpse on
stage, to actually put the corpse up there with the
He began "The Late Henry Moss" in 1989 and got an act
and a half into it. "Then I just threw up my hands and
said, 'I don't wanna do this.' Ran from it, in a way.
Made up all kinds of excuses: that it was another rehash
of 'True West,' who's gonna care? I actually sent the
play to the [Shepard] archives at the University of
Texas and forgot about it."
But an unfinished Shepard play tends to attract
attention. Jim Houghton of New York's Signature Theatre,
which devoted an entire season to Shepard's works a few
years ago, got hold of it. Then others, including
Shepard's friend and mentor Joe Chaikin, encouraged its
"The second act," he says of the original version, "went
off into all kinds of weird, tangential stuff about the
Spanish conquistadors and blood and Christ, and the
Sangre de Cristo mountains. It got goofy. That was part
of the reason I abandoned it."
All that went in the rewrites. Shepard acknowledges the
inspiration of Frank O'Connor's short story "The Late
Henry Conran" regarding a narrative device used in the
Credit for assembling such a formidable cast must go,
Shepard says, to Penn, a Marin County resident who
wanted to do the play close to home. "I always wanted
Sean in it," he says, "and Sean actually suggested Nick.
Cheech [Marin] kinda came through through Jim [Gammon],
because of 'Nash Bridges.'
"Because these actors are so extraordinary, you learn a
lot about intention. You very clearly see the places the
material wants to go, places you've forced it to go or
pretended it should go.
"A good actor always sets you straight. If you've
written a false moment and thought it was probably
pretty great, the actor's gonna show you when he gets to
that moment. They're the great test of the validity of
"At first, I didn't want to believe that," Shepard says,
with a quick chuckle. "When you're 19 and writing plays,
you think every actor is full of it. They just can't
handle your brilliant material."
Penn and Nolte bring nicely complementary sensibilities
to a rehearsal room, Shepard says. "Sean tends to work
at a slower pace; he's continually absorbing stuff but
not necessarily acting on it. He likes to let it drizzle
on him awhile, let it all accrue. Nick'll take leaps out
there and then come back and then take another leap.
Woody Harrelson's like that too.
"Cheech is absolutely incredible. Here's a man who has
never done a play, but with his long career in stand-up
comedy with Cheech and Chong, he's obviously learned a
lot about showmanship. He's an extraordinary character
actor. They say TV has a tendency to diminish actors,
and I think that's probably true in the long run--it
wears on 'em like bad dental work--but Cheech doesn't
show any of the signs of being damaged that way. And as
a man, he's fantastic."
The sold-out run of "The Late Henry Moss" is scheduled
to end Dec. 17. No one has committed to a second
production as yet, though New York and regional interest
clearly is running high.
'A Certain Period of Grief Has to Go By'
His ham and cheese gone, Shepard wants to stress one
thing: This isn't his life or his father he's dealing
with, strictly speaking. It's no more directly
autobiographical, he says, than J.M. Synge writing about
an unruly man and his thorny father in "The Playboy of
the Western World," a raucous Irish classic Shepard
Nonetheless, he says, this one needed a few years'
"A certain period of time has to pass, with a death
that's devastating like the death of a father. A certain
period of grief has to go by before you can make this
other leap. And when you make that leap--not necessarily
writing about it but using the event as a catalyst for
something else--it's no longer strictly personal. It's
no longer strictly about your own father.
"Grief is bizarre territory because there's no
predicting how long it'll take to get over certain
things. You just don't know how long it's going to
resound in your life. Or, after it's apparently stopped
resounding, when it'll come up again. It's extremely
personal. That's why I could never understand this thing
of grief 'counseling' or grieving 'clinics.' That
doesn't make any sense to me at all. Why would you wanna
be counseled in your grief? It's too private."
Emotional truth is one thing, but Shepard is just as
interested these days in matters of craft. "That other
stuff is always gonna be with you, the emotional
earthquakes and volcanoes and all that. They're a given;
they're a part of who you are. But the craftsmanship is
what separates the men from the boys, the wheat from the
"The emotional [material] is there, always. But it has
to have a house, a place to rattle around in. And it's
not a question of neatness; it's a question of
integrity. You can have the neatest house in the world,
but the structural integrity has to be there, and it has
to be dictated by the emotional content.
"It's not a question of building an empty house and then
living in it," he says, about to venture back into
rehearsals. "You have to live in it while you're