I don’t quite remember the first time I heard the name Sam Shepard, and I’m not positive, but I think the first Shepard play I read may have been Tooth of Crime. In any case, it’s the first play of his that I saw. My freshman of year of college, it was the first production of the season.
It blew my mind.
It didn’t take long for me to be hooked. I drank the kool-aid.
From there I went on to devour his collection of works, which were very popular pieces to be used for scene study classes and monologues. I even took an entire semester of Shepard as an acting class. Sure there were Shakespeare studies and Chekhov studies. Both very worthy. But this was Shepard studies. This was one of the hottest living playwrights of the day.
This was also the late 80s and I imagine the college kids today have moved on, with the possible exception of the truly untouchable pieces like Curse of the Starving Class, True West and, of course, Buried Child. Just thinking about those make me itch to do work on some Shepard.
It was when I was in that Shepard class that a (relatively) local production of his latest dysfunctional-family-gone-awry script was playing. A group of us from the class, plus the acting teacher and several others, piled in cars and drove the two hours back home to Chicago to catch the Steppenwolf production of A Lie of the Mind. It featured Randall Arney, Robert Breuler, Amy Morton, Jeff Perry and Rondi Reed.
If you know anything about these actors or Steppenwolf, you know that’s an amazing cast to have seen together.
The detailed performances, the commitment to the creation of the lives of these characters, the sweat and tears of it all. This was old school Steppenwolf too. In their tiny storefront place at 2851 N. Halsted, with its tiny, low-ceilinged lobby. The Tony award nicely featured in a little glass cabinet. The small, intimate stage where you could practically reach out and wipe the drops of sweat off an actor’s face. I can still see the expression of fear and loathing in Rondi Reeds eyes. (She, by the way, should be more of a household name.)
So combining the powerful gem of Chicago theatre with the mighty work of Sam Shepard…I was in heaven. It was a truly awesome experience.
And why am I reminiscing? Because I just read an article that about a new Off-Broadway attempt at reviving this script. (It incidentally also includes a Steppenwolf member.) I’d love to go to New York and see it. I haven’t seen any Shepard work lately. It’s not done enough, maybe because it’s not appreciated by people who have only seen bad depictions, or perhaps they think it’s too hard, and maybe even some people think it’s become its own cliche. That’s the thing about his writing. As Laurie Metcalf says in the article , “The two things that pop immediately in Sam’s plays are the violence and the insane humor, but when you go deeper, it’s not at all just that. It’s easy to look at the strangeness of his work, and it’s a trap.”
It would be a trap, one which would only lead to mediocrity. There’s so much there below the surface.
If you’re in New York, catch this production. Drink the kool-aid.