Fort Worth — “All that stuff about my father and my childhood is interesting up to a certain point,” playwright Sam Shepard asserted with supreme confidence to The Paris Review in 1997, “but I kind of capsized with the family drama a long time ago. Now I want to get away from that. Not that I won’t return to it, but a certain element has been exhausted, and it feels like why regurgitate all this stuff?”
For people familiar with his work, Shepard’s covering some pretty familiar territory with The Late Henry Moss, written in 2000—fathers and sons, brothers, alcoholism, people on the fringes of American society—but certain aspects of the play, especially its treatment of women and people of color, aren’t as easily passed over as perhaps they could be in his heyday of the ’70s and ’80s. It’s to DragStrip Courage’s credit that its production of the piece, directed by Natalie Gaupp and hosted by Arts Fifth Avenue, has several performances that rise above the show’s problematic elements and make The Late Henry Moss a tense, sometimes explosive exploration of the damage families inflict on one another, and the bodies we can’t seem to bury.
Literal bodies, in this case or at least body, singular. After a silent interlude between the titular Henry Moss (Eugene Chandler) and his “girlfriend”/tormentor Conchalla (Rosalinda Olivares), the play opens with brothers Earl (Seth Johnston) and Ray (Travis J. Fant) sitting an uneasy vigil over their estranged father’s blanket-wrapped corpse in a dilapidated New Mexico shack. While Earl, the elder brother, seems inclined to drink himself into a stupor and reminisce about their family’s past, a sharp, relentless Ray is trying to establish just what happened in his father’s final days, and whether Earl knows more about it than he’s saying. It’s Ray’s interrogation of the players who witnessed Henry’s end—his neighbor, Esteban (Shawn Gann) and the cab driver (Forrest Swanson) who took Henry and his girlfriend on an ill-fated fishing trip—that unwinds the threads of Earl’s story and re-opens old family wounds, provoking a violent, devastating confrontation between the brothers.
Naturally, the play’s success hinges on the relationship between brothers Earl and Ray, and both Johnston and Fant turn in excellent, very distinct performances. As Earl, Johnston has a plaintive, befuddled quality beyond his character’s drunk gruffness in his initial scenes, suggestive of a man accustomed to the abuse and aggression of other men, perhaps especially his family members. Fant’s Ray is a cold, domineering presence onstage, who seems to have inherited all of his father’s worst qualities except alcoholism. The character by his nature is forced to play the straight man to several characters’ more comic bent, but even when silent he projects an air of threat—you keep your eye on him. The piece is at its best when exploring the power dynamics between the two, and the actors have developed a certain prickly, lived-in chemistry with one another that’s compelling to watch.
The less successful aspects of the play involve its more minor characters. As an obsequious unnamed cab driver, Forrest Swanson has some nice comic moments and some tense moments with Ray, but the section focusing on that character is overlong and drags down the play’s momentum. More problematic is the character of Esteban, Henry’s neighbor, who’s an unfortunate collection of ethnic stereotypes—a feminized, at times lust-crazed presence who’s driven into a cowardly, crying puddle by Ray’s forcefulness. Shawn Gann brings good comedic timing to the character, and a genuine warmth in his reminiscences about his time with Henry before his passing, but can’t overcome the discomfort provoked by the throwback nature of Esteban’s character.
Equally troubling is the character of Conchalla, Henry’s companion before his death, who’s a mix of a sort of wild, drunken manic pixie dream girl and pseudo-mystic stereotypes around indigenous women; hard to say which aspects are the most offensive. As Conchalla, Olivares struggles mightily to ground the character, and deserves credit for some success. She has some funny moments in flashbacks with Esteban, the cab driver, and Henry and a few more serious moments that land towards the play’s conclusion, but the character has no real reason to exist narratively than to force Henry to confront his own demons, especially those regarding his deceased wife—an unseen martyr/Madonna who’s objectified to serve as catalyst for the actions of the play’s men. Perhaps it’s simply a bad time politically for yet another exploration of the tortured psyche of the white American male.
And speaking of the tortured male, Eugene Chandler’s Henry is the natural center of the piece, and Chandler does well in not only offering a sort of pastiche of both his sons most obvious (worst) qualities, but in bringing pathos to a fairly despicable character. The character could be pushed to darker places, which might better justify his sons’ later actions, but that is more a fault of the script itself, as is the untenable choice to somehow focus on how the character’s abuse of his wife affected him rather than how it affected her and their children—perhaps Shepard’s most tone-deaf moment in the piece.
All in all, some well-trodden ground from Shepard; to paraphrase The Godfather, just when he thought he was out, these same story elements seemed to pull him back in, to compel him to explore them in further, if not always deeper, detail. Kudos to DragStrip’s cast for bringing the depth of feeling the piece sometimes lacks, and for turning in performances that push this problematic, sometimes meandering piece into more interesting emotional territory.