“I’d like to stare out into the abyss for a while,” says Mable, the domineering matriarch in Sam Shepard’s play Heartless, currently in performances at the Pershing Square Signature Theater. Unfortunately, I felt the same desire stirring in me after watching this confusing production that left me wrinkling my brow and wondering, “Huh?” After watching such a muddled play, I thought a glimpse of the abyss would help clear my head.
Shepard’s play holds the potential to be beautifully poetic but it is bogged down by too much symbolism and too little explanation. (This is an ironic twist, as I usually complain of the opposite situation in disappointing scripts.) In Heartless, we meet an unhappy family that is haunted – perhaps only metaphorically, perhaps literally – by a trauma from decades ago. Sally, the younger daughter (played in a haunting performance by Julianne Nicholson ), almost died as a child due to a faulty heart and was saved by an organ transplant from a murder victim. Unable to reconcile herself to being alive when she thinks she should have died, Sally is a lost soul – angry, resentful and vicious, she is hateful to her family even though she is living in her mother’s isolated house nestled in Hollywood Hills.
Sally is bunking with Roscoe, her lover who just left his own wife and children and is wracked with guilt and indecision over his divorce. More than twice Sally’s age, Roscoe is not exactly welcomed by Sally’s mother Mable, played in a ferocious performance by Lois Smith who sinks her teeth into this horrifying role with obvious relish. Mable is mysteriously paralyzed and waited on by Sally’s timid older sister Lucy (Jenny Bacon) and Elizabeth (Betty Gilpin), a mute nurse whose nationality is questionable and whose past is mysterious, to say the least.
Much of Heartless is mysterious, especially the lack of clarity in what is actually happening onstage. Directed Daniel Aukin, with a stark black set designed by Eugene Lee, Heartless leaves much to the audience’s imagination and interpretation – too much. Roscoe’s real reason for leaving his family is never fully explained, nor is Lois’ illness. The actual identity of Elizabeth is revealed – sort of – as well as the weighted meaning of the play’s title during the second half of the show, but as one or two questions are answered, even more are asked.
Despite its disappointing script, the cast of Heartless is excellent. Each performer presents his or her character as fully formed as possible. Nicholson portrays Sally’s grief and confusion capably and manages to make even her more spiteful and immature moments (almost) understandable. Bacon gives Lucy a sympathetic exhaustion, depicting how wearily she is resigned to her role tending to her her mother. Gilpin is not able to do much as Elizabeth other than smile and stare, but when she does get to speak she is mesmerizing to watch. As Roscoe, Gary Cole gives a robust performance as a man at a crossroads. But it is Smith’s performance as Mable that provides the show with its sharp and pointed backbone. Sitting imperiously in her wheelchair, she rules her home with a reign of terror and anger, even providing a menacing undertone to the simple question, “What are mothers for?”
Shephard is known for writing about the relationships between fathers and sons, so a female-focused script is a new offering from him and his lack of comfort with the topic is obvious. This family is trapped in a perpetual state of taunting and cruelty with no end in sight and rather than inviting compelling analysis or even shocked observation, the steady flow of slings and barbs becomes monotonous, with no dramatic showdown or reveal to provide the show with a climax. While ambiguous endings can sometimes provide extremely satisfying experiences at the theater, the lack of clarity and metaphysical muddle in Heartless are not assets to the show; they are detriments.
“I want to come to life,” Sally sings hauntingly while sitting alone and staring into the distance. One can imagine this play expressing the same wish.