The Late Henry Moss
Also see Richard's review of Mary's Wedding
The Late Henry Moss, which Sam Shepard labored over for ten years, is by no means his best play. It's overly long, recycles themes used to greater effect in other works, and too often relies on writerly cleverness rather than organic development. But it's a big play about big themes, and in its best moments provides the kind of magical experience which only live theatre can produce.
For these reasons, as well as the perspective the play affords on Shepard's better-known works, it's worth checking out the intense production by the St. Louis Actors' Studio, which will play at the Gaslight Theatre in the Central West End through April 20.
The basic elements of The Late Henry Moss will be familiar to any Shepard fan: a drunken and abusive father, a grim household in a desolate setting, a battling pair of brothers, struggles over whose version of the past will prevail, and a shameful family secret which will be revealed by the play's end. Shepard has written subtler plays on these themes: in this case, we know just what we're in for early in the first act when younger brother Ray (David Wassilak) asks elder brother Earl (William Roth) if he wouldn't mind going over the whole story just one more time.
Through the play, Ray acts like a police interrogator, repeatedly grilling his brother, calling in other witnesses, and gradually assembling the story of how Henry Moss died, first metaphorically and then in fact.
Much of this story is told in flashback, and those moments contain some of the best writing and acting in the play. In particular, Brooke Edwards excels as Henry's mistress Conchalla, who first pronounces him dead and then gently ushers him over the threshold to the next world.
Patrick Huber's set perfectly captures both the naturalistic and symbolic aspects of this narrative. While most of the stage is set up as a realistic interior of a rundown shack in rural New Mexico, the "exterior" at the edges is a David-Hockney-like abstraction of a New Mexico landscape. In addition, the intimate Gaslight Theatre provides an ideal setting for this claustrophobic drama.
The production felt just a bit off the day I attended; perhaps a sunny Sunday afternoon just isn't the best time to summon up the demonic energies required to bring off this difficult play. The malaise was most evident in the actors portraying the battling Moss brothers, both of whom seemed tentative and uncomfortable in their roles, resulting in a lack of intensity which blunted the emotional impact of the play.
The other actors fare better. John Pierson nearly steals the show as Taxi, one of the last people to see Henry Moss alive, a fact which leads to his becoming involved, quite reluctantly, in the Moss family drama. Kevin Beyer as Henry Moss allows us to see the character both as a tyrant who terrified his family, and as a pitiful old man longing for the release of death. Brooke Edwards as Conchalla and Larry Dell as the saintly neighbor Esteban bring real humanity to roles which, as written, rely heavily on dated stereotypes.
The St. Louis Actors' Studio production of The Late Henry Moss will play at the Gaslight Theatre in the Central West End through April 20. Ticket information is available from 314-458-2978 and www.stlas.org.