It’s been a long time since Thomas Wolfe told us you can’t go home again, but the news hasn’t gotten through to the world of dramatic characters, whose homecomings are staples on the stage, no matter how problematic they turn out to be. But in Heartless, Sam Shepard’s new family drama, while a returning daughter is the premise, the play itself explores some new territory – with mixed but interesting results.
When 30-ish Sally (Julianne Nicholson) brings her young-for-65 boyfriend Roscoe (Gary Cole) home to her mother’s manse near Los Angeles, there’s no telling what he expects. She’s footloose and fancy-free and has decided to make a documentary about her Cervantes-scholar boyfriend; he’s just left his wife and kids and seems up for a Don-Quixotes-style picaresque journey of adventure himself. But what he gets is a stifling modern-Gothic haunted house, where the wheelchair-bound matriarch Mable Murphy (Lois Smith) distributes her favors between her nervous, repressed daughter Lucy (Jenny Bacon) and her mute blond nurse Elizabeth (Betty Gilpin). The women seem immobilized by their past, and Sally’s return only opens old wounds in the relationships – one of the greatest of these symbolized by the scar across her abdomen. The romantic road trip peters out as Roscoe is pressed into being an increasingly uncomfortable audience for the family’s acting out of their old grievances, anxieties and love.
Writing about women has never been Shepard’s strong suit (think Becky Lou), so you have to admire him (and the play’s one male character) for venturing into this particularly forbidding viper’s nest of pent-up emotion and horrific history. But the playwright does realize that symbolizing stultification – as women and family so long have done – means that this fractious female foursome is, if anything, even more victimized by it than are the “rootless” men who wander in and out of their lives. They’re desperate to break loose, somehow, and the longer Roscoe and Sally are there, the more inevitable it becomes that the house’s secrets will out. As the tensions build, Shepard’s concrete images – the scar, the smog, the “abyss” below the house – take on eerie surreal resonance, as they’re extended into metaphor and then amplified back into reality in ever more strange and menacing forms.
Smith is smart and shrewish as the physically and spiritually paralyzed matriarch, while Nicholson’s Sally starts off abundantly displaying all the disaffection and distrust one would expect from a prodigal daughter, but also achieves some moving moments in her soliloquies. The show stealers, though, are Gilpin, whose silence-breaking sobbing can’t be ignored forever, even in this household, and most of all, Bacon. Her edgy, compelling depiction of the dutiful daughter dipping into her mom’s medication is hysterical and heartbreaking. If ever a characters of Shepard’s has embodied how the friction between family and freedom can rub the psyche raw, it’s Lucy, and Bacon’s final attempt to break out is both disturbingly crazy and strangely hopeful. It’s a tour de force performance. Even the Cervantes scholar is no real Don Quixote; without his wife and family he’s unmoored. But Bacon’s Lucy, at least, is likely never to come home again; you can imagine her driving down the road forever.