The national debate over euthanasia, which recently peaked as a transparent attention-getter for politicos and cable news channels, is playing out in more contemplative fashion in Don DeLillo’s “Love-Lies-Bleeding.” Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater continues its relationship with the author-playwright in this premiere production about the life and induced death of a stroke victim. But while the one-act play is refreshingly earnest in its intellectual approach to the topic, it falls short as a compelling theatrical experience.
The five-member cast, which includes John Heard and Steppenwolf a.d. Martha Lavey, delivers an articulate exploration of the issue within a larger context of creationism.
The setting is the desert Southwest home of elderly artist Alex (Larry Kucharik) who sits comatose in a wheelchair following his second stroke, attended by his wife, Lia (Penelope Walker). Alex’s only son, Sean (Louis Cancelmi), and an ex-wife, Toinette (Lavey), have arrived on a singular mission — to humanely end the gentleman’s pathetic life over the probable objections of the caregiver.
The three individuals conduct an impassioned debate about the right to die on one’s own terms, no matter how long it takes, vs. the convenience of the living. DeLillo’s dialogue is pointed but not exactly riveting as the trio’s members engage with conviction on the timeless theme. Perhaps to emphasize that enduring nature, each character repairs to a dimly lit chair on the side when not sharing the spotlight, awaiting his or her next cue.
The discussion moves into a higher realm as the play jumps back and forth in time over a six-year span to reveal a younger and more vibrant Alex (Heard). He is a self-possessed person who has married four times for convenience. He’s also an artist intent on creating a lasting piece of expression in the red rocks of the Southwest, and on pursuing his love for desert flowers, especially the stark but beautiful Love-Lies-Bleeding. His thoughts on creating such artistic expression, and whether he can truly be considered the author, soon become intertwined with the life-ending debate at hand.
Under Amy Morton’s straightforward direction, DeLillo’s characters are all portrayed as dry, intense and generally humorless individuals in both good times and bad. While that tactic may help underscore the cerebral discussion at hand, along with several poignant ironies, it surely limits the ability to empathize with any member of this opinionated crew.
The play’s best moments involve Heard’s flashback scenes, when the dreary debate about death can be temporarily overlooked.
This production marks the evolution of the Kennedy Center’s Fund for New American Plays from a minor contributor to numerous playwrights and theaters to a more substantial and focused vehicle. The fund now selects one regional theater production each year for a $75,000 gift and then showcases the resulting work on its stages.