Sam Shepard (1943–2017)

Sheridan Square Playhouse, in Greenwich Village, 1983. Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love was playing. Ed Harris and Kathy Baker starred. On one night, I was there. As with every Sam Shepard play I saw in New York City, it was a small theater. This particular theater was especially intimate. The play takes place in a motel room, in one of those down and out cheap places we’ve all stayed in at least once. The set was minimal, dominated by a bed. To the left was a rocking chair in which an old man sat. He was ignored most of the time and spoke intermittingly. Most of the dialogue was between Harris and Baker. This was the first time I saw Ed Harris, and he was wonderful. I remember feeling the menace in that motel room, feeling it as if I were there, unable to leave. The tension and heat from the stage struck me in the body. I couldn’t escape it. I remember Ed Harris had a lariat, and, like a cowboy, would lasso a bedpost every once in a while casually, and never miss. I saw something in that play I’d never seen in a drama before, and that was a man and a woman fiercely going at one another with lust and anger and defiance and yearning, but with the power shifting, never stable, always in doubt. In Fool for Love it wasn’t physical power or strength that won the day, but words. I remember wondering who was the strongest, who had the power, and not knowing the answer. After watching quite a few of Shepard’s plays, I would always have the same question and it would always go unanswered. And that always in his plays, somewhere, there was a deep wound that guided these men and women and often made their behavior a mystery, yet a mystery I believed in. I remember how uneasy that play made me. There was heat in that motel room, and you couldn’t turn it down with a switch.

I remember in that same year of 1983 seeing Sam Shepard’s The Tooth of Crime at La Mama theater in the East Village. That theater and the sensibility and force behind La Mama was one of the reasons I wouldn’t live anywhere but New York. One of the characters in the play was on roller skates and, somehow, that was menacing. The play, which also had a band that played and sang, was a duel between two men about dominion over territories. Their names are Hoss and Crow. (This I had to look up. Memory.) To this day, I can hear one of them defiantly shouting, “Vegas is my territory!” as he skated around his antagonist on roller skates. It wasn’t a play about a man and a woman and love, but it was a duel, like Fool for Love, and it was charged and thrilling.

I remember seeing John Malkovich, also for the first time, and Gary Sinise, in Shepard’s True West at the Cherry Lane Theater in Greenwich Village. That would have been in 1983 or 1984. (Think of all the Sam Shepard you could see in those few years, with the most magnificent actors!) Malkovich was pure menace, scary but irresistible. He pays his brother, played by Sinise, an unwelcome visit in their mother’s home where Sinise is housesitting, and then won’t leave. Malkovich’s voice — when you heard it, as I did, for the first time! It was bitter and low-key and cautious and full of unsettling pauses. His face — we all know Malkovich’s face by now through films — with that curling lip and sideways-looking eyes, was unsettling. I could even see those eyes, and be scared by them — yes, scared — from the eighth or ninth row. There was John Malkovich, in a slow prowl, walking across the stage, taking in everything in his brother’s home with his darting eyes, like a predator. And always, in the theater-goer’s mind, the idea of the California desert just outside.

I remember Malkovich’s character, Lee, treating Sinise’s character, Austin, with disdain and mocking Austin’s attempt at writing a screenplay. Then, bit by bit, as they do in Sam Shepard’s plays, the tables indiscernibly turn and before we are fully aware, it is Malkovich’s Lee who is writing the screenplay and who doesn’t want to be disturbed by the displaced, angry Austin. What happened? It’s not entirely clear, except that ambition and fame seem to trump everything. And that one of the beating hearts of this play is the fierce dynamic between two brothers, as old as Genesis. How did Shepard do this? I don’t know. It was seamless, like some sleight of hand trick, or disappearance, something Houdini could do.

I remember seeing Buried Child, Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize winner, at the Theater de Lys in Christopher Street, with a set that looked as tired and worn out as its characters. I remember feeling all too familiar with these Midwestern people, having spent more time than I would have liked in a small Michigan town that felt isolated and inbred. Unlike the other Shepard plays that I saw, this had more characters, had a wider scope in that respect and told me that Shepard could write that kind of play, too. What this, and the other plays I saw — like A Lie of the Mind that I saw at the Promenade Theater in New York — had in common, though, was the Greek tragedy’s sense of destiny and inevitability. That you cannot escape your past. That what the parent does will be visited upon the child.

Every Sam Shepard play I saw excited me and made me feel uneasy. Every one of his plays was electric with conflict, much of it menacing. I never walked out of a play of his without a series of doubts and questions flying about in my head, without my body having experienced the play, without taking that world with me, without thinking, God, what a voice, what a writer, what an unflinching eye. He was never a movie star to me, though I admired his acting. He was a playwright, a wonderful one, first and foremost, and I feel incredibly lucky to have seen his plays when, and where, I did.