Dysfunctional families. Warring brothers. Alcoholism. Yep, Sam Shepard is back in town. The Late Henry Moss, Shepard's troubled drama, is back from the dead, so to speak, in a new production by White Horse Theater Company. First seen in New York in 2001, Shepard's hit and miss play is a messy creature worthy of further exploration.
The play has traveled a rocky road since its world premiere at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco in 2000, where the starry cast included Woody Harrelson, Sean Penn, and Nick Nolte. White Horse's production doesn't boast any stars, but there are a couple of fine actors in the mix. Shepard is hard to pull off, though, as his plays walk a fine line between the realistic and the fantastic, and only the sharpest of actors can really communicate both stylistic moods.
As in Shepard's True West, the main characters are two brothers, Ray (Rod Sweitzer) and Earl Moss (James Wetzel), who have their share of troubled family history together. They have arrived in Bernalillo, New Mexico to attend to their recently deceased father, the play's titular character. Papa Henry was far from a saint, and it is soon revealed that his alcoholism and his physically abusive attacks on his sons and wife have left lasting damage that bores deep into the souls of Ray and Earl.
When Ray arrives, he finds Earl guarding their father's body, which has now been left out inexplicably for three or four days. Not trusting his brother's story that his father's death was natural, Ray forces a variety of strange characters from a taxi driver (David Runco) to Esteban (Alfonso Ramirez), an overconcerned Hispanic neighbor, to reveal what they know about the elder Moss's demise.
Nothing is ever simple in a Shepard play, and some of this play's brilliance comes from the way that Shepard seamlessly weaves together present events with flashbacks. As the characters look at old photos and reminisce about the past, whose story should we believe? Earl's? Henry's? The taxi man's? If there are interesting issues of truth and family relationships on the table, they are unevenly handled by the cast.
As the older brother Earl, James Wetzel offers a thoroughly convincing performance as a damaged individual who has worked hard to erase much of his father's violent behavior from his memory. Wetzel possesses the gruffness and anger that Earl requires, along with the tenderness of a frightened child. Such credibility is missing from Sweitzer's Ray who, at least until the third act of the play, seems to lack the requisite fire that defines his unbalanced and damaged mental state. Given Sweitzer's somewhat flat line readings, Wetzel is really the one to watch, but the effect is that the theatrical balance between the brothers is subsequently thrown off.
Bill Fairbairn, as the patriarch, understands Henry quite well and embodies him with equal parts vitriol and desperation. In terms of supporting roles, there are some good, if at times questionable, choices by the other actors. As the taxi driver who was one of the last people to see Henry Moss alive, David Runco is a gawky, skittish presence. If sometimes lacking in subtlety, Runco's presence serves mainly as a plot device that provides insight into the unknown story of Henry. As the domestic Chicano neighbor with a penchant for making soup for Henry, Alfonso Ramirez is a warm and touching Esteban who adds some welcome laughs to the proceedings. Finally, Sylvia Roldán Dohi brings a beguiling weirdness to the character of Conchalla, Henry's lover, turning her into part she-devil, part floozy, and part mystical shaman.
Director Cyndy Marion, who is slowly making a name for herself by directing Shepard plays, offers a strong hand with this production. With the effective lighting and costumes by Debra Leigh Siegel and as staged on the appropriately threadbare and rundown set (designed by Matt Downs McAdon), Marion provides intriguing stage imagery and well-choreographed direction. She's particularly adept at creating a powerful stylistic dissonance between the past flashbacks and the present scenes. One problem with the play, and this is more of Shepard's problem than Marion's, is that it is simply too long. With three acts and ringing in at over two and a half hours, the play often drags and could stand a number of cuts.
If The Late Henry Moss isn't the most polished or sharpest of Shepard's plays, it does contain some interesting treasures. White Horse's production, while often compelling, can never fully shake off some of the tediousness of the play, in what should really be a two hour affair. Still, for those who think that Henry Moss still hasn't gotten a fair hearing, checking out this production might not be such a bad idea.
The White Horse Theater Company