In much the same way that gladiatorial combat gave young bucks of an earlier era the chance to show their macho mettle, Sam Shepard plays are a terrific proving ground for actors who fancy themselves cowboy rebels and big, bad dangerous guys. White Horse Theater Company is into the Shepard mystique in a major way, having already tackled three of his previous plays. But as this mannered production indicates, talking the talk and observing the ritual gestures is a far cry from grasping the fierce pain and anger in Shepard’s intensely personal material — and feeling it in your bones.
With its harrowing narrative line about the death of a father and the violent impact it has on his two sons, “The Late Henry Moss” is the final battle in the mythic father-and-son war that Shepard has been writing and rewriting his entire life. Although it lacks the vision of his great plays, like “Curse of the Starving Class” and “Buried Child,” which treat the breakdown of the family as a metaphor for the decline of the American West, it’s the very last word on the death of the mean-drunk cowboy.
The authoritarian and abusive father who is frequently alluded to but rarely seen in Shepard’s plays takes centerstage here — and he’s dead. The stone-cold corpse lies under a Mexican blanket in a one-room shack on the outskirts of town at the edge of the New Mexico desert. (“My dad lives alone in the desert,” Shepard said of his own alcoholic father, who died in a road accident in 1984. “He says he doesn’t fit with people.”)
The old man’s death forces the reunion of his two estranged sons, who proceed to battle it out — ostensibly over the circumstances of their father’s death, but really about the love-hate relationship that kept the three of them at one another’s throats when he was alive and kicking.
The elder son, Earl (James Wetzel), has been keeping a bedside vigil for three days when his brother, Ray (Rod Sweitzer), arrives from parts unknown, raring for that fight.
Although Shepard puts as much cold fury into the verbal exchanges between the brothers as he does into their bloody brawling, Cyndy A. Marion’s direction is more weighted toward the give-and-take physical punishment. (Fight director Michael G. Chin obliges her with some efficient if stagy theatrics in this department.) Circling one another and snarling with toothy menace, Sweitzer and Wetzel aim for the kind of bold and brawny acting style that Gary Sinise and John Malkovich brought to their definitive treatment of “True West” and other Shepard plays for Chicago’s Steppenwolf company.
But that kinetic, confrontational style is too much for these two thesps, who strain hard to play mean and brutish, but are as ill at ease with the muscular physicality as they are with the earthy language. (The Magic Theater’s premiere production of “The Late Henry Moss” in San Francisco, under Shepard’s direction, along with the docu film about that event, “This So-Called Disaster,” gave Nick Nolte, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson and Ethan Hawke a chance to demonstrate their own Hollywood versions of that mad-dog performance style.)
The impression of big kids awkwardly going through the ritual games of play-acting eases up somewhat during the extended fantasy sequences that, in typical Shepard fashion, break up the naturalistic scenes between the brothers. Although Bill Fairbairn has a sweet expression and gentlemanly manner that is entirely at odds with old man Moss’ mean-as-a-snake personality, he has his moments when the character arises from his deathbed to offer a surreal version of his final day of life.
With a handsomely costumed Sylvia Roldan Dohi on his arm as his Indian girlfriend (and spooky spirit guide) Conchalla, the un-dead father dances the rumba, hires a taxi to drive them off for a day of fishing and gives his sons a glimpse of their old man they’d never seen before. David Runco applies some offbeat comic skill to the role of the hapless taxi driver who is harassed by Henry and slapped around by the brothers just for trying to live up to his Texas heritage of being nice to nasty people.
While the “true” Henry Moss isn’t much prettier than the tyrant who exists in his son’s minds, he has a terrific story to tell about being cursed to live out his last days as a living dead man as punishment for the abuse he inflicted on his wife and children. “That’s not what I wanna be known for — breathing and yelling,” Henry protests. “I’ve got lots of qualities besides breathing and yelling.”
Although he fails miserably at displaying any of those admirable qualities, Shepard at least gives him a chance — which is the closest this playwright has come yet to forgiving his old man.