The Late Henry Moss
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
January 21, 2005
Sam Shepard has always been a writer—perhaps the writer—whose work is most like catnip to up-and-coming theatrical young guns. Those who want to test their mettle find his plays the most challenging, and the most opportune, for this purpose. White Horse Theater Company can easily be counted among these ranks. Since their inception in 2003, they have produced three shows—True West, A Lie of the Mind, and States of Shock—all written by Shepard. Now, they can add a fourth one to that list: their current revival of The Late Henry Moss, a production that is fascinating and worthwhile, even if it is also uneven and somewhat disappointing.
The plot features Shepard's trademark blend of feuding brothers and wayward fathers. Two brothers, Earl and Ray, converge on the remote New Mexico home of their recently-deceased father, Henry, an alcoholic who left his family long ago. As the brothers try to put Henry’s affairs in order, decades-old family skeletons are dug up. Before long, Ray suspects that there may be more to his father’s passing than meets the eye, and he launches his own informal investigation to prove that.
Working in the more naturalistic vein that he has favored since the 1980s, Shepard’s writing here is strong. The conflict between Earl and Ray is palpable from the start, and convincing throughout. Henry—who gets more stage time than any other father figure in Shepard’s canon—is both a heartbreaking and pathetic figure. After years of watching Earl and Ray’s fraternal thematic ancestors in plays like True West and A Lie of the Mind, the audience finally gets to see the primary paternal force that shaped them all. One look at Henry’s raging, drunken shenanigans explains a lot about why all of Shepard’s brothers are such tortured, wounded souls.
Set designer Matt Downs McAdon’s terrific unit set immediately transports us to Shepard’s intended world. Henry’s one-room house is ramshackle and claustrophobic, decked out with telling bits of set dressing: a lone Dolly Parton LP, a worn-down map of Mexico on the wall, a stack of National Geographic magazines on the bookshelf. Debra Leigh Siegel’s atmospheric lighting design also helps, especially in the play’s numerous flashback sequences (all of which feature Henry). Subtle but clear light cues signify a shift back in time, and drive those transitions nicely.
The cast is game for tackling such difficult material, but only half of them are successful. James Wetzel is appropriately grizzled and cranky as older brother Earl, even if his performance never reaches the level of danger and unpredictability that Shepard indicates on the page. Alfonso Ramirez provides much-needed lightness as Esteban, Henry’s next door neighbor who is always quick with a hangover treatment of homemade soup. As the title character, Bill Fairbairn believably modulates between the highs and lows, the rage and the confusion, of a career drunk.
Sylvia Roldan Dohi runs into trouble as Henry’s girlfriend, Conchalla, which is understandable since the character serves solely as a metaphor. But for what, we never know, because neither Dohi nor director Cyndy A. Marion seems to know either. Their collective take on Conchalla never goes deeper than a cross between a shrill voodoo priestess and a booze-soaked frat girl. David Runco seems equally lost as Taxi, another character that neither actor nor director seems to know what to do with. This is too bad, because the character, as written by Shepard, provides enough hilarious opportunities for the actor playing him to steal the show. Alas, they mostly go untapped here. Runco endows Taxi with the kind of self-possessed quirkiness that would fit right in with the characters of a film like Napoleon Dynamite, but is inappropriate for Shepard. Most disappointing of all is Rod Sweitzer as younger brother Ray. His performance is consistently one-note throughout—defensive, sarcastic anger— even though Ray, as written, runs the gamut of emotions during the play. Hopefully, Sweitzer and Marion will work more on adding dimensions to Ray during the course of the run. Since he is the play’s anchor, doing so will only deepen the already-charged dynamic between the two brothers, and enrich the production further.
White Horse Theater Company is to be commended for consistently tackling the work of a playwright as challenging as Shepard. They clearly have a desire to do his plays justice, and are well on their way to assembling all the components necessary to do so. Practice will eventually make perfect for them. In the meantime, savor the opportunity they have given us to see a master playwright working near full power, and take advantage of it.