After a lifetime of writing fierce plays about fathers and sons, scribe Sam Shepard has written a not-so-fierce play about a mother (played by the indomitable Lois Smith) and her unhappy brood of daughters. The central character of “Heartless” is a 65-year-old man who walked away from his wife and children and into a relationship with a woman half his age. But despite his glib tongue and sexual magnetism, this rolling stone is ultimately out-talked and out-maneuvered by Shepard’s women.
Mable Murphy (Smith), a cranky old woman in a wheelchair, shrewdly sizes up the stranger who unexpectedly turns up at her isolated home in the Hollywood Hills as being “lost in the woods.” Roscoe Hubbard (Gary Cole) is also lost in this all-female household, which is hardly the ideal sanctuary for a runaway husband to “heal up” after abandoning his family. But Roscoe is the guest of Mable’s sullen and withdrawn daughter Sally (Julianne Nicholson), a documentary filmmaker who picked up this sort-of famous literary figure, took him home and into her bed, and doesn’t seem particularly anxious to cut him loose.
Nicholson makes sensitive and technically subtle work of Sally, a damaged woman kept alive by a transplanted heart and feeling damned angry (and guilty) about that. Hiding behind her video camera, she’s quick-witted and bitterly funny — a good match, actually, for Roscoe.
But Roscoe can’t keep his eyes off Elizabeth (Betty Gilpin), Mable’s beautiful mute nurse and, mysteriously enough, the presumably dead donor of Sally’s heart. And, just to throw in one more complication, Sally’s mousey older sister, Lucy (Jenny Bacon, in full command), a slavish nurse to their demanding mother, has also taken a shine to Roscoe.
Shepard’s plays tend to resolve themselves in explosions of endgame violence — great mythic clashes between lovers (“Fool for Love”), fathers and sons (“Buried Child”), warring generations (“The Tooth of Crime”). Despite a skirmish in which the sisters try to stop Roscoe from leaving, “Heartless” lacks such a dramatic showdown and suffers for it.
What the play does have in spades, however, is the scribe’s distinctive lyrical voice, best contained in Mable’s speeches, including this harrowing recollection of Sally’s heart surgery: “My pink daughter — just a corpse waiting to be brought back to life. No breath. No mind. Sliced open like a deer in the woods. Steaming in the yellow leaves.”
Although no less controlled, that astonishing voice grows more expansive in Roscoe’s final apocalyptic vision of tearing down the highway, desperately trying to vanish, “like a demon … a phantom … a ghost,” from a civilization going up in flames. Not to mention his own guilt.
The only drawback is that these powerful words are delivered mostly in monologues, and only rarely in dialogues engaging multiple characters. The closest the play comes to an actual exchange is when Mable instructs Roscoe on the differences between mothers and fathers. “You could be a cold-blooded killer and your mother would forgive you,” she declares, in Smith’s riveting perf, adding that “the father would be full of judgment and condemnation … He would disown you.”
Not that Roscoe gets any comfort from Mable. “I don’t subscribe to the cult of apology,” she lectures the runaway family man. “Sin is sin. It’s guilt we’re trying to squirm out of.” Director Daniel Aukin (“4000 Miles”) is the kind of director actors like to work with. Instead of manufacturing dramatic effects for static scenes, he leaves his thesps free to play their characters’ internal dramas, a technique that pays off in unforced but precise role-playing. Smith’s monstrous matriarch may rule the roost (to the point of overwhelming Cole’s Roscoe when he neglects to get out of the way), but the three younger women hold their ground, and Nicholson is quite fearless at revealing Sally’s pain.
As befits a play with more than a few unresolved mysteries, Eugene Lee’s suggestive set is built on abstract images cast in Stygian gloom by Tyler Micoleau’s lighting. The most dramatic visual is the severely raked stage that backs onto a canyon — the bleak abyss that Mable peers into when she’s in the mood to frighten herself. The two brass beds that take center stage get some action, but the long, empty highways that beckon Roscoe and transfix Shepard are left to the imagination.