Something radical has happened to Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer-winning play. When he wrote it in the 70s he did something that for Americans was unusual and for non-Americans revelatory. He placed centre stage an oft-overlooked section of American society.
The once-prosperous, now decaying Illinois farmhouse in which Shepard’s main protagonist Dodge sits coughing, smoking and watching TV is home to the kind of Jesus-loving country folk whom audiences could sympathise with, then forget about. Especially the city folk of San Francisco and New York, where the play was first seen in 1978.
But with the London arrival of this New Group production starring Ed Harris, with Amy Madigan as Dodge’s terrifyingly pitiless wife Halie, the world is adjusting to the idea that these are in all likelihood the people whose support has swept Donald Trump into the White House. And even though the action never leaves Dodge’s dingy living room, we now know that far from being politically disenfranchised, this is now the most influential demographic in the world. It’s a new context that hovers over Scott Elliott’s production. None of this, however, hides the play’s flaws.
True, Shepard’s first act is astoundingly well wrought. As the sofa-bound Dodge, Harris transmits a world-weary resignation about the things not turning out as well as they might have when the farm was producing enough milk to fill Lake Michigan twice over. His every response to his wife Halie is imbued with grizzled, sardonic irony, though underpinned with a little good humour. Whether Harris’ and Madigan’s Strindbergian dance has an authenticity rooted in the actors being real life husband and wife, I wouldn’t like to say. But the sense of a couple locked in estrangement is utterly convincing.
The second act – the production contains two intervals – is equally potent. It’s here that Dodge’s grandson Vince arrives after a six-year absence with his L.A. girlfriend Shelly. They are played by James Irvine and Charlotte Hope. The latter transmits a wonderfully judged sarcastic contempt towards her boyfriend’s dysfunctional family, later mixing it with fear when he leaves at the mercy of his unhinged redneck father and uncle (Barnaby Kay and Gary Shelford). There is more than a hint of Pinter about this homecoming. And a little like Pinter’s Ruth (written in The Homecoming five years earlier) Shepard’s Shelly overcomes primitive and sexually threatening men.
But as events unravel the meaning of the play's title, less and less is left to the imagination. The play that is beautifully understated eventually evolves into something overwrought and with an unnecessary on-the-nose denouement.
Still, its author – also an actor – has provided some of the greatest roles in American drama, and this cast takes full advantage in probably one of the best performed productions of the year. The case for reviving the play was never going away, but now that we know the condition of its protagonists affects us as much as them, it has never been stronger.