January is shaping up as Sam Shepard Month in Orange County theater, but don't look for any official proclamations honoring the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.
Credit coincidence more than design with the fact that three Shepard plays are opening locally in a one-week period: "True West," which opened Friday at the Gem Theatre in Garden Grove; "The Curse of the Starving Class" at UC Irvine, which opens Thursday, and "Fool for Love," which opens Friday at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.
Why the flurry of interest in Shepard, 43, whose work is considered baffling by some, brilliant by others?
"He's a very hot writer," said Thomas Bradac, producing artistic director of the Grove Theatre Company.
That heat is generated by a variety of factors. There is Shepard the Playwright, one of the leading voices in contemporary American theater, whose work reflects a dark, disturbing vision of contemporary America. That vision underscored the tangled family ties of "Buried Child," which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1979.
There is also Shepard the Cowboy, who grew up in a semi-rural corner of the San Gabriel Valley and put in time as a stable hand and ranch worker. His Southwestern roots and affinity for the land and its people find their way into many of his plays, whose characters, motifs and folklore are drawn from a heritage common to Westerners.
But audiences are probably most familiar with Shepard the Actor, from his performances in such films as "The Right Stuff," "Country" and "Crimes of the Heart."
"I'm sure your average person doesn't know that he won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, but they do know that he played Chuck Yeager in 'The Right Stuff,' " said Martin Benson, who is directing "Fool for Love" on the Second Stage at South Coast Repertory.
Benson said he has followed Shepard's work from his early play-writing days in the mid-1960s, watching his sprawling work synthesize and narrow in landscape. South Coast Repertory's official association with Shepard dates back to a production of "La Turista" in its 1968-69 season. The 1981-82 season included the Southern California premiere of "True West," which featured actor Ed Harris, and last season offered "Buried Child," which was popular both with critics and audiences.
"Fool for Love" examines a complicated, passionate relationship being played out in a shabby motel on the edge of the Mojave Desert. It was first staged in New York in 1983, with Shepard directing Ed Harris in the lead role. SCR artistic directors Benson and David Emmes have wanted to bring it to SCR ever since they saw that production.
"It's so unique and invigorating to find plays that have a California-Western sort of mythic thing about them," Benson said, adding that California audiences immediately relate to that mythology, having grown up with Old West folklore and what's left of the wide open spaces.
"True West"--the 1980 tale of two brothers at odds--was Bradac's choice to introduce Shepard to Grove Theatre Company audiences. The company had planned to stage "True West" last season but was unable to obtain the rights. This year, it is getting its chance with a production directed by Frank Condon.
"It's our first attempt at Shepard, and 'True West' was the vehicle that I felt was the best one for us to introduce him to our audience. There's a lot of humor in 'True West'--which in some of his other plays there is not--and I tend to feel like when you're going to introduce a new work that one of the things that helps pull that together is the counterpoint of humor."
Bradac has watched Shepard's work grow and change over the past 20 years. "If you look at his early work, like the stuff he was writing in the '60s, some of it was really cutting edge and pretty far out," he said. Bradac sees Shepard in his recent work coming back from that edge to deal with major themes that are more universal in nature, although he adds that Shepard tends to deny that assessment in recent interviews.
Director Mary Anne McGarry, who heads the graduate acting program at UCI, selected "The Curse of the Starving Class" because she wanted a challenge. And she got one with Shepard's 1978 drama of a boy struggling to persuade his parents not to abandon the family farm.
His plays look deceptively simple, but they are exhausting to stage, she said. The technical aspects alone are producing their share of headaches--"Curse" requires both a live lamb and a slaughtered lamb, a live explosion and three weeks' worth of food to be cooked on stage during the play.
"Everybody wants to come see Sam Shepard's plays because they know his name, because they've seen him in movies," she said. But she anticipates a few surprises for her audiences who know Shepard only from his screen work.
"We hadn't really done a main-stage production of Sam Shepard. We've done witty, elegant things; we've done Harold Pinter and lots of Chekhov and Shakespeare, but we really hadn't tackled a contemporary playwright like (David) Mamet or Shepard in the last few years in our main-stage season," she said.