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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 500-502
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The Late Henry Moss
The Late Henry Moss. By Sam Shepard. Signature Theatre Company, Peter Norton Space, New York City. 20 October 2001.
The star-crossed New York premiere of Sam Shepard's The Late Henry Moss took place immediately in the wake of the September terrorist attacks, which inevitably muted its impact as the first production in the Signature Theatre Company's 2001-02 season. The play initially came to New York under the cloud of the negative critical reception to its world premiere a year earlier under the playwright's own direction at San Francisco's Magic Theatre. At Shepard's insistence, the New York production was directed by Joseph Chaikin, one of the playwright's most significant inspirations and long-time collaborators, a choice that promised a quite different result from its West Coast version.
As in a number of Shepard's earlier works, The Late Henry Moss portrays a reunion of two estranged brothers haunted by an absent father and an unresolved common history of domestic violence and familial betrayal. Here, however, the absent father is physically present at the center of the play's world instead of being evoked through exposition or subtext. The play is structured as a séance and an attempted exorcism of the dead father's toxic grip on the brothers' lives. The action is set in Henry's shabby desert house, his final place of personal exile and asylum. Christine Jones's stylized set and Michael Chybowski's lighting together create a striking blue and orange palette that suggests both the extremes of the desert setting and the subtly ritualistic nature of the play's action. Shepard's play of the dead father's emphatic presence and the nuances of the brothers' relationship to each other, in combination with Chaikin's strong cast, complements as well as echoes the playwright's earlier works. [End Page 500]
Shepard's Henry Moss is the playwright's downscale answer to Tennessee Williams's Big Daddy in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. While lacking Big Daddy's wealth, Henry Moss rivals him as a free-wheeling and unrelenting wellspring of unvarnished verbal vulgarity, at once infantile, aggressive, obstreperous, and artlessly inventive in his speech. Shepard has captured a certain American monstrousness in Henry, which is made possible in no small part by the playwright's pitch-perfect ear for middle American vernacular. While living a hard-scrapple life in solitude on a military pension in the New Mexico desert, Henry is no less able to contort and poison his children's lives than Williams's southern gothic patriarch. Guy Boyd plays Henry as a kind of trailer park Ubu, both funny and ghastly, his shameless boorishness mixed with self-pity. Boyd's comic grotesque, however, curiously fails to communicate the character's capacity for cruelty and violence, on which the traumatic collective history of the family hinges.
Ethan Hawke effectively plays the demanding role of Ray Moss, the younger son who becomes a kind of detective in the face of the enigmas revealed around his father's death. Arliss Howard plays the skittish, outwardly conventional, and mysteriously guilty older brother Earl. Hawke's Ray is distrustful and cynical in his pursuit of the truth, while Arliss's Earl wraps himself in mawkish sentimentality and false obsequiousness. Earl and his father swing between self-hatred and contempt for others, as particularly revealed in their dealings with the play's two Chicano characters. Ray has so far been spared the self-hatred, but shares his father and brother's aggressiveness and arrogance even as he strives to stand apart from them. His determined search for the truth both redeems him and demands a chilling ruthlessness when confronted with the pathologies of his father and brother.
If Henry Moss is Shepard's answer to Big Daddy, then his Chicana girlfriend Conchalla Lupina (played by Sheila Tousey, the only holdover from the original San Francisco cast) is the playwright's version of Josie Hogan in O'Neill's A Moon for...