Editor's note: In Pages from the Arts, we'll review books that relate to what we cover on the site: theater, opera, classical music, dance, comedy, spoken word and film/TV with a stage connection. Look for our opinions on biographies, memoirs, histories, work about practice and theory, coffee table books and other tomes. These will be curated and mostly written by contributor Cathy Ritchie, Acquisitions Librarian at the Dallas Public Library. Ritchie also reviews books for the websites of the Dallas Public Library, Theatre Library Association, and the American Library Association’s GLBT Round Table, plus other publications.
Pages from the Arts will also include reviews from other TheaterJones contributors, and we encourage our readers to suggest and submit reviews, too. If you're reading a newish (let's say less than a year old) book that falls into a performing arts category, email editor Mark Lowry at email@example.com and let him know you'd be interested in reviewing it. If you have written or contributed to a book that fits the mission, let him know that too, especially if there is a North Texas connection.
If the book is currently available at the Dallas Public Library, we'll offer that information.
In this edition of Pages from the Arts, Ritchie reviews the biography of the now-late Sam Sephard that was released in April; a 2016 biography of stage and screen actress Teresa Wright; and the script of David-Lindsay Abaire's Ripcord, which will be produced by Fort Worth's Circle Theatre beginning Aug. 17.
Sam Shepard: A Life
By John J. Winters
Counterpoint Publishers, 2017
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
As I type this paragraph, the world is learning of Sam Shepard’s death on July 27 from complications of ALS. I am stunned and saddened. Thanks to this fine biography, I feel I “knew” Shepard well, as an amazing artist who blended his ceaseless creative drive with personal integrity that rarely wavered.
Even those for whom Sam Shepard’s testosterone-soaked, blackly humorous, and often just plain bizarre plays are out of their comfort zone must admit that his was a unique life—punctuated by an unexpectedly two-pronged career, both aspects of which brought him acclaim alongside sometimes challenging personal struggles. John J. Winters gives us an engrossing view of a quirkily remarkable guy.
Samuel Shepard Rogers III was born in Fort Sheridan, Ill., in 1943 and raised in Duarte, Calif. After high school, during a junior college stint, Shepard discovered the works of Samuel Beckett, which eventually catalyzed him into Career No. 1. (As Shepard commented later, Beckett taught him that “with words, you can do anything.”) He dropped out of school to join a theatre group.
Landing in early-1960s New York City, he connected with the so-called “off-off-Broadway” scene and permanently adopted the name “Sam Shepard.” He began writing plays, all one-acts at first, winning six Obie Awards between 1966 and 1968. He also found time to perform as a drummer in local bands, as his love of music, especially jazz, equaled his drive to write.
Shepard was an instinctive, prolific playwright, though his plots and characters often verged on the indescribable. Regarding the creation of his early plays, he observed: “There were so many voices that I didn’t know where to start. I felt kind of like a weird stenographer. I don’t mean it to sound like hallucination, but there were definitely things there, and I was just putting them down.”
The ensuing decades were fruitful, including marriage and the birth of his first child, plus an affair with rocker Patti Smith. He began writing full-length plays and in 1979, received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his Buried Child. At this point, Shepard begin creating his his best-known works, including True West (1980), Fool For Love (1983), and A Lie of the Mind (1985), later joined by collections of short stories, poems and monologues, such as 1982’s Motel Chronicles, Cruising Paradise in 1996, and his final prose work, the novel The One Inside, appearing earlier this year.
Shepard’s Career No. 2 materialized when, as a lark and to make some extra money, he made his first film appearance in Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven in 1978. The new “Gary Cooper in denim,” as New York Magazine characterized him, was a sensation, and went on to a significant roles in Resurrection (1980) and Raggedy Man (1981) and perhaps most famously, a portrayal of Chuck Yeager in 1983’s The Right Stuff, for which he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. The films kept on coming—including Country (1984), Crimes of the Heart (1986), Steel Magnolias (1989), The Pelican Brief (1993), August: Osage County (2013) and many others—as did his plays and their productions all over the country.
And Then There Was Jessica: the divorced Shepard met Jessica Lange when they both appeared in 1983’s Frances, and their relationship quickly deepened. They never legally married but lived as a couple for the next 30 years, raising their own two children, plus Lange’s daughter by Mikhail Baryshnikov. Yet career demands and Shepard’s increasing issues with alcohol contributed to the couple’s final breakup in 2009.
Shepard continued to write, direct and occasionally act as the years set in, though, for the most part, success as a Broadway playwright eluded him. As Winters states: “It’s hard to believe that a writer of such accomplishment and acclaim as Shepard, who had been producing plays for 32 years, wasn’t regularly produced on Broadway. Then again, when one considers how different his work is from most mainstream American theater, believing becomes easier.”
Sam Shepard may well have been the elder statesman among American playwrights at his time of his death but, as was the case throughout his professional life, he largely shunned the spotlight, preferring to spend most of his days in remote areas, living out his genuine “cowboy” persona, away from glitter and hype. Health, financial and legal issues (including several DUI arrests in his later years) impacted his final output, but the theatre world was always attuned to see what Sam Shepard would produce next. Broadway marquees were dimmed in his honor on Aug. 2.
Winters does a superb job of re-creating Shepard’s multi-faceted life, skillfully melding its professional and personal aspects in a continually interesting narrative. He offers useful synopses of nearly all Shepard’s plays, but eschews deep literary analysis of said works, since, as he points out, such material is available elsewhere. Winters displays his expertise as a longtime Shepard scholar, yet never forgets to tell a good story, as well. As he summarizes: “Shepard has scaled the heights in drama, cinema, fiction, screenwriting, and music. He conquered each on his own terms. In a publicity-crazed world, he doesn’t do talk shows, red carpets, social media or even many interviews. He’s always put the work first and allowed it to speak for itself. That’s a quality in rare supply these days.”
Hand in hand with the sobering news of his passing, this excellent book should inspire readers to revisit the Sam Shepard canon, both in print and on celluloid. This singular man’s legacy deserves no less.
A Girl’s Got to Breathe: The Life of Teresa Wright
By Donald Spoto
University Press of Mississippi, 2016
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
By age 23, she was a Broadway sensation, nominated for three Academy Awards in two years and winning one. After roles in other well-regarded films, she moved on to television, where she was multiply Emmy-nominated, becoming the “go-to” actress for TV drama. Her later career found her back on stage where her roles would ultimately include the legendary ladies Linda Loman, Mary Tyrone, and Amanda Wingfield, among many others. In short, she was one of America’s greatest actresses. But how many among us immediately recognize the name Teresa Wright?
Thanks to veteran biographer Donald Spoto, that quandary exists no longer, as his fine book introduces us to a remarkable woman and artist whose career was lengthy and varied, but who largely shunned glitzy spotlight and focused instead on being the best communicator of character possible. Her versatility and integrity led to respect and admiration for her talents throughout her decades on screen and on the boards. Wright and Spoto were also close personal friends for 30 years, and he is open about this fact in his introduction to this actress’s first full-length biography.
She was born in 1918 Harlem and grew up in New Jersey; after her parents separated, Wright’s mother apparently pursued the world’s oldest profession in the very home she shared with her daughter. After seeing Helen Hayes perform live in New York, young Teresa was smitten by acting, apprenticing with a Massachusetts theatre over several summers.
After high school, she journeyed back to New York and eventually understudied the role of Emily in the premiere production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, later assuming the part fulltime. In 1939, Wright began an acclaimed two-year run on Broadway as Mary Skinner in Clarence Day’s popular hit Life With Father, receiving stellar reviews.
Samuel Goldwyn spotted her, and Wright became Bette Davis’s daughter Alexandra in 1941’s The Little Foxes, for which she would receive her first Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. In 1942, Wright achieved a rare double nomination—Best Actress for her Eleanor Gehrig in Pride of the Yankees, along with another Best Supporting Actress nod for her Carol Belden in that same year’s Best Picture Mrs. Miniver, winning the latter prize. Teresa Wright remains the only performer to have received Oscar nominations for her first three films. (And a side note about this book’s title: according to Spoto, when Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig planted a passionate smacker on his “Eleanor” in rehearsal, Wright’s spontaneous reaction was “Hey, a girl’s got to breathe!” It was added to the script.)
Wright would later deliver lauded performances in Alfred Hitchcock’s acclaimed Shadow of a Doubt in 1943, and in 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives. Newsweek proclaimed her “one of the screen’s finest”.
The 1950s brought transition for Wright, including some studio conflict leading to fewer quality films. But the decade saw her both return to the theatre and begin a prolific new career during the “Golden Age” of television drama, receiving several Emmy Award nominations.
Her subsequent theatre work encompassed Broadway, regional venues, and summer stock as she tackled classic and contemporary characters, both dramatic and comedic. (In 1980, I myself had the pleasure of seeing her on stage in Paul Osborn’s Morning’s At Seven.) Teresa Wright brought a passionate work ethic, professional integrity and thoroughness of preparation to all she did, and her reputation for excellence never dimmed. She once said, “An actress must work. You either create or wither.” Wright died in 2005 at the age of 86.
She would marry and divorce twice, first to writer Niven Busch with whom she had two children, and later to playwright/screenwriter Robert Anderson of Tea and Sympathy fame. It is regarding that second marriage where Spoto’s engrossing narrative derails a bit for me, as he shifts gears to devotes pages to Anderson’s own background, quirks and issues, over and above his relationship with Wright. Spoto’s personal relationship with Wright and Anderson also becomes a prevailing focus in the book’s final portion, moving away somewhat from Wright’s career and instead dipping into more minute aspects of the couple’s relationship. While these choices on the author’s part in no way ruined the book for me, I did find them a bit jarring.
Otherwise, Donald Spoto has given us a long-overdue and well-deserved tribute to one of our greatest performers. He summarizes: “As an actress, she pushed the conventions of glamor clean off the stage and the screen, bringing a quality of naturalness, of immediacy, of honor to the human qualities she found in a role…The catalogue of her roles allows us access not only to a memorable array of credible characters but also to qualities we may covet for ourselves.”
Good to meet you, Teresa Wright.
By David Lindsay-Abaire
Dramatists Play Service, Inc., 2016
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
Abby and Marilyn are roommates at the Bristol Place Senior Living Facility. Upbeat Marilyn is chatty and perky while caustic Abby would rather just read and water her plants now and then. They share the room due to space issues, but Abby lusts to once again be alone in her primo piece of single-occupancy real estate. The women begin an often hilarious yet increasingly obsessive game of one-upsmanship and practical joking run amok, escalating to unforeseen levels.
Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and he is again in superb form in this newer work, as he combines sly physical and verbal humor with moments of revelatory pathos, centered upon the clashing desires of two women involuntarily coping with the likely twilight of their lives. Ripcord premiered at New York City’s Manhattan Theater Club in 2016 in a production directed by David Hyde Pierce and starring Holland Taylor as Abby. It also runs at Fort Worth’s Circle Theatre Aug. 17-Sept. 16.
In addition to two meaty roles for, shall we say, “over-age-40” actresses, Ripcord offers much in its brief span: wit laced with insight on growing old in America and the need for taking control of one’s “territory”—though at what cost? It’s another thoughtful and enjoyable work from a very fine playwright.
» Pages from the Arts appears on the second Wednesday of the month in TheaterJones.
PREVIOUSLY IN PAGES FROM THE ARTS
- February 2017: A Mary Martin biography, Joel Grey's autobiography, Jack Viertel's book about the structure of musicals, and a book about playwriting by T.J. Walsh of Trinity Shakespeare Festival
- March 2017: A memoir from Broadway legend Barbara Cook, a history of the Bolshoi Ballet, and a helpful primer on classical music.
- April 2017: Two biographies of legendary pianist Van Cliburn, namesake for the upcoming 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition; a story of African-American opera singer Ryan Speedo Green; a chronicle of a summer repertory production of Much Ado About Nothing; and gorgeous book (and CD) for musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.
- May 2017: A book about Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theatre, a portrait of how Venezuela's El Sistema became a model for publicy funded music education, and a biography of the late comedian Joan Rivers.
- June 2017: Three memoirs from classical musicians: Andrea Avery's Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano; Min Kym's Gone: A Girl, A Violin, a Life Unstrung; and Marcia Butler's The Skin Above My Knee: A Memoir.
- July 2017: Dominic Dromgoole's chronicle of taking the Globe Theatre's Hamlet to nearly 200 countries; a new biography of dance/choreoraphy legend Gene Kelly; and the script of Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat.