Play it, Sam: remembering Shepard

The legendary American playwright and actor, dead at 73, changed the way we thought about theater

“I hate endings. Just detest them,” Sam Shepard once said. “… The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning. That’s genius.”

When word broke on Monday morning that Shepard had died last Thursday, revolving toward some fresh beginning amid the great unknown, it was like a rolling thunderclap breaking over a dry terrain. We don’t expect our geniuses to just end – what sort of resolution is that? – and in a way they don’t. They live on as they play inside our souls and minds, and Shepard surely will do that. He was 73 years old and had had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Sam Shepard in the movie “Steel Magnolias.” Photo: Rastar Films © 1989

A lot of people will remember Shepard as an iconic movie actor seemingly carved from the American hills and soil, and his work in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven and the astronaut movie The Right Stuff, among other films, is memorable He also wrote the screenplay for the terrific movie Paris, Texas. But for me, and many others, his true genius was as a playwright.

A whole new generation of writers dominates the American stage now, many of them women and writers of color, reflecting the excitement and challenges and vivid possibilities of a rapidly changing culture. But  Shepard remains a genuine radical who changed the way we thought about theater. Beginning as a wild and free-form outside voice, he matured into a central chronicler of the culture, reinhabiting the mainstream of the American theater in the tradition established by Eugene O’Neill but doing it in his own voice and on his own terms, without losing his outsider edge.

Like O’Neill, Shepard was an intensely musical writer. Unlike O’Neill, whose plays seem symphonic and operatic in their structure and repetitions, Shepard’s rhythmic impulses were more new-world: blues, bebop, roots, rock ‘n’ roll. Like O’Neill, whose many earlier experimental plays led to the gravity and searing breadth of his great handful of masterworks, Shepard rapped out short shocks – plays with startlingly inventive titles like Icarus’s Mother, La Turista, Holy Ghostly, Mad Dog Blues, Back Bog Beast Bait – developing his voice in preparation for the heavy yet lively and energetic work of his great plays to come.

And like O’Neill before him, Shepard wrote about a mythic America beyond the standard-issue American myth. He never lost sight of the American stain, the American wound, the Cain-and-Abelness of the American portion. Nobody gets out of here alive, but there’s always a new beginning, always a new battle to rush into willy-nilly. His plays captured the essential contradiction in the self-invention of the salesman nation, and how that split in the soul also echoes the act of what actors do. “An image,” he once explained it in an interview for PBS Great Performances. “This thing of being seduced into believing one is what you make yourself believe you are.”

Michael Mendelson and Andres Alcalá in Profile Theatre’s 2014 production of Shepard’s “Eyes for Consuela.” Photo: David Kinder

In the early days Shepard was a rock drummer, playing sometimes with the Holy Modal Rounders, a band that ended up hanging around Portland, where several of its members dug in roots: The brilliant Teddy Deane became musical director of the old Storefront Theatre, where several of Shepard’s plays were produced. In 1975 Shepard became resident writer at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, producing a steady stream of new shows, and after playing at the Magic they often seemed to zip up the coast and open almost hot off the presses on Portland stages. We’ve seen mind-opening productions of Shepard plays ranging from a brilliant The Unseen Hand to The Tooth of Crime, Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child, A Lie of the Mind, True West.

Shepard wrote for the mind and the emotions, and he wrote for actors, who reveled in his roles. His projects drew the best, in Portland and pretty much everywhere else: I remember seeing the off-Broadway premiere of A Lie of the Mind in 1985, with a live bluegrass band, the Red Clay Ramblers, and an astonishing cast that included Harvey Keitel, Amanda Plummer, Aidan Quinn, and Geraldine Page.

Shepard wrote from the earth, and he wrote for the astonishing bravery of letting go and floating free, even when your roots sill have you in their grasp. Eric Walter, the Portland actor and director, hinted at that when he embarked on a 1987 production of Suicide in B Flat for the old Oracle Theatre. “It’s a one-act,” Walters commented, “and it just sort of happens, as if in a dream.”

Dream on, Sam. Float free.

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