"It's like fingernails across a blackboard," said Roxanne Rogers of the emotional setting for John Patrick Shanley's "Savage in Limbo" (opening Sunday, under her direction, at the Cast). The play focuses on five 32-year-old acquaintances still living at home with their parents-- with no prospects, no future, no way out.
"It's about trying to find an ideal life--and the pragmatic, day-to-day existence that drags us down," she continued. "The characters are plopped into this dead Bronx neighborhood, this dead bar. The lid is on and they've got to get it off or they're going to suffocate. But the neighborhood--family and religion and tradition--is so strong; it really holds them. They're stuck, and that's what's so terrifying.
"Shanley has chosen 32 because it's a particularly painful age: The characters figured they were going to get (this good life)--we're Americans, that's what we're told--but they didn't. They're not young anymore, they're not independent. They're looking at each other, thinking 'What are the next 30 years going to be?' And the play challenges the audience, too, like a (gauntlet): 'Are you going to pick this up or just walk out of here like you didn't see it?' "
Rogers acknowledges that a blanket of New York Angst envelops most of Shanley's work: "I think he comes from a place of extreme pain. He's this intellectual, a wild and wonderful person, but he lives in that environment; he's been beaten up on every street corner in the Bronx. Besides that pain, he's really looked at his life--a person who thinks and talks and gets his thoughts out." The result, she says, "is a bit like opera, with a real athletic quality. And it's also very street, very urban."
For Rogers, 29, who considers herself a "desert rat" (she was raised in Duarte, "a little rock quarry in the San Gabriel Valley"), that energy has long held an appeal. "I'm not a very laid-back West Coast girl--in spite of my avocado background," she grinned. "I've always been more urban, faster. I thrive in New York, love it. But it's hardball here, too. I think my life is pretty fast-paced."
She seems to like it that way. After graduating early from high school, Rogers set off for Berkeley "because I was a radical--but I was a little late; everything had happened 15 years before." At the end of the term, she headed for Europe and worked 1 1/2 years as a photojournalist. "But it had always been drilled into me that I had to go to college--both my parents are teachers--so I applied to Antioch, and because we were champion poor kids, I got these huge loans."
At Antioch ("stuck in the middle of nowhere in Ohio"), she segued to radio reporting, edited the school paper and worked on documentaries. After graduation, a burned-out Rogers returned to California "to just sort of hang out and have my mom make me soup."
Instead, she got a call from her brother, playwright-actor Sam Shepard (the family name is Rogers), who was putting together the first Padua Hills Playwrights Festival and thought she might like to do some acting. "So there I was, thrown into a bunch of plays. I looked about 16, hadn't acted since high school. But it was great. I'd been trying to avoid this all my life--I didn't want to have anything to do with what Sam did, ride on his coattails--but it was like I had no choice. I was addicted."
Rogers dove into studies in San Francisco: "I didn't know how to act. I had to start from zero." Soon, though, she started getting offers to direct--then more and more. "Then a friend said, 'If you're really serious about this, you should go to Yale.' So I applied and got in. It was good, because I had all the experimental work behind me--(Joseph) Chaikin, (Jerzy) Grotowski, John O'Keefe, Sam--but I knew I needed a classical background to direct."
Since then, Rogers has worked in New York, Minneapolis, Santa Fe and Los Angeles, managing to carve out a place for herself--and also foster new talents. "I don't have a lot of respect for directors," she said casually, "but I have a lot for playwrights. They're the ones who are going to do something about the American theater, jar it into something that's alive again. People always say that Sam's the great American playwright. Well, he's good--he's a genius. But you can't live on just one writer."
And no, she isn't intimidated by his new movie-heartthrob status.
"He's just my big brother," she giggled. "It's no big deal. He takes care of me; he's fierce about his little sister. (Shepard is 11 years older.) See, we're not a Hollywood family, just these regular, smart Midwesterners. And Sam is a very lucky, talented man--who's also been aggressive. He's gone out and gotten what he wants; he had this animal in him that had to be written out. And he still considers himself just a writer."