Sam Shepard’s plays, as far as I know them, often deal with the questions of family inheritances/curses, and with the idea that progress is impossible. In Shepard’s world, a family is something you can never get out of, something that will keep pulling you back, no matter how hard you try to get away – an institution where change cannot happen and where the same themes and patterns keep recurring for eternity.
This play is no exception. The characters are the members of a dysfunctional, half-ruined family – each of them unable to communicate and unable to understand the others, all of them kept together by an old family secret/curse (a curse they brought upon themselves).
At the beginning of the drama, the old parents and their two adult sons are merrily indulging in deep family misery: they all lack trust in the others; they don’t listen to each other (it’s a telling detail that a significant percentage of their conversations is conducted in shouts as the conversing parties are usually in different rooms); they casually ignore the reality and needs of the others; they lie all the time – just for the hell of it; and they have serious doubts about both their own, and about the others’ sanity.
Then one day the 20-year old grandson shows up with his girlfriend – the prodigal child is ready to reconcile with his family he abandoned long ago.
According to the traditions of literature, the arrival of outsiders usually signifies a major change, so at this point we might start expecting that suddenly all the family will confess their sins, rebuild their lives from scratch, and so on. How surprising then – though probably not in Shepard’s world – that here all these efforts stop halfway, and no major improvements take place.
The outsiders are not outsiders enough, or not strong or dedicated enough to push any major change through.
After all, the prodigal grandson, Vince just wants to find his proper place in the family again, and he works hard to achieve this goal: he even goes so far as to evoke wild horseplay and childhood tricks, hoping that this way his father and grandfather will recognize and accept him again – the fathers, however, remain silent and are unwilling to embrace Vince. (And again, it’s typical: Vince manages to find his way back to his family when he stops trying, and assumes the irresponsible behavior characteristic of his family – then he becomes instantly recognizable.) All in all, Vince is only interested in the big family reunion, so his presence doesn’t really shake the boat.
The other outsider, Vince’s girlfriend, Shelly is a different matter, though – and she’s quite an exciting and unpredictable character. At first glance, Shelly is a stereotypical dumb California chick, accompanying her boyfriend on a family visit without much enthusiasm, thinking that the great reunion will involve roast turkey and apple pie, a caring granny and a gentle grandpa – but when it turns out that things in the family are not exactly as she imagined, she stands up to the challenge and deals with the less than comfortable situation with admirable presence of mind.
Her foreignness is truly foreign, and she has no interest at all in finding her place in the family, so she really acts as a catalyst: because Shelly is a stranger, her presence doesn’t seem to matter all that much, so everyone goes ahead and tells her about deeds and secrets that have been age-old family taboos. Still – Shelly is only one outsider, all alone against five living and hordes of dead family members – there’s no way she can bring about real change on her own.
In the end, I’m not sure if all this is tragic – because Shepard has a bizarre, wicked sense of humor, and it’s just enough for me not to quickly succumb to deep melancholy. Still, if I think about it for a minute – Shepard’s world is a gloomy and hopeless place.