Volume 16 • Issue 37 | February 13 - 19, 2004


By Sam Shepard
White Horse Theater Company
Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, Stage II
312 West 36th Street
February 13-29
(212) 868-4444

A timely staging of Shepard’s ‘States of Shock’

By Jerry Tallmer

Cast of ‘States of Shock’ a Sam Shepard play at the Abingdon Theatre; from left, Dee Spencer, Rod Sweitzer and Richard Leighton as the Colonel.

The White Woman has her clam chowder. The Colonel has his banana split. Cyndy A. Marion had her haircut.

The White Woman, petulant, overbearing, and blinkered, slurps her long-delayed clam chowder while her husband, The White Man, no less obnoxious and blinkered, masturbates over the bowl of his own clam chowder that Glory Bee, the coffee-shop waitress, has dumped in his lap.

The Colonel, more overbearing than both of them put together and all rigged out in bits and pieces of military attire bespeaking fields of fire from Seminary Ridge to San Juan Hill to Chateau-Thierry to San Pietro to Khe Sanh, has been unable to force Stubbs to ingest the banana split which the Colonel is now, as the bombs start to fall on all sides, wolfing down.

Stubbs is the horribly wounded poor slob in the wheelchair who took a bullet for the Colonel’s son.

Or maybe he IS the Colonel’s son. Who knows?

Sam Shepard knows, most likely. He wrote “States of Shock,” this jagged anti-macho drama which, not much seen since the parade of lukewarm-to-negative reviews that un-saluted its 1991 debut at the American Place Theater, is now having a rebirth in a White Horse Company production directed by Cyndy Marion at the Abingdon Arts Complex on West 36th Street.

“The first time I ever read it was two months after 9/11,” says the woman who’d done her MFA thesis at Brooklyn College on Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love” and knew Shepard’s bio and most of his works inside-out — but not “States of Shock.”

Which is precisely why she thinks the time is at hand for it to be seen again. “Just the timing. The world we’re in now is very different from that of 1991.”

On the morning of September 11, 2001, Cyndy Marion was in Park Slope, walking toward the subway to take her from Brooklyn to Manhattan for a haircut. “I spent all that day trying to get to Manhattan to get that haircut, in complete denial, just like the White couple. And I did get the haircut.”

But then the fear set in. “I couldn’t believe it. It just leaked out of me.”

Research (she’s a formidable researcher) has told her how Shepard got going on this particular work, which in its original staging at the American Place Theater, with John Malkovich as the Colonel, was taken to have prime reference to Viet Nam.

Not so, says Ms. Marion.

“Shepard didn’t intend that. When he got the idea, he was sitting in a restaurant, a sort of horse bar, in Kentucky. The television was playing, showing pictures of bombs dropping on Iraq [the 1991 war of the first President Bush]. People in the restaurant were oblivious to it. Here these bombs were pummeling everybody in Iraq, and nobody here was paying any attention.”

Oblivion. Denial. Yes, and I myself - said a journalist who had most willingly served in an earlier war - I myself, who had once written: “We are waiting for the bombs” (to wake the U.S. up to Hitler), shut eyes and ears totally to the first four or five years of U.S. involvement in Viet Nam.

Not until 1968, and the kids, and Gene McCarthy, or maybe a little before that, were those eyes and ears willing to open.

“That’s it!” said Cyndy Marion. “The White Couple are simply numb. It’s not until we’re attacked that it hits home. Shepard puts this into the mouth of Glory Bee [the waitress at Danny’s coffee shop].”

The thing I can’t get over is, it never occurred to me that Danny’s could be invaded. I always thought we were invulnerable to attack. The landscaping. The lighting. The parking lot. All the pretty bushes, Who could touch us? Who would dare?

That was 1991 — two years before the first attack on the World Trade Center. Ten years before 9/11.

The American Place staging, by Bill Hart with playwright Shepard sitting in, had an African-American actress, Erica Gimpel, as Glory Bee, giving the piece an added element of racial tension.

“We elected to go that way also [with Dee Spencer], particularly since the script has her singing a Billie Holiday song [‘Good morning heartache’].

Shepard himself has acknowledged that the audience at the original production didn’t fully get the story. Some of that,” says the present director, “may have been because Malkovich was a fairly young man at the time [he was 38]. We’re casting it with a man in his 60s.”

That’s Richard Leighton. The three other players are Diane Shilling as The White Woman, Bill Weeden as The White Man, Rod Sweitzer as Stubbs.

Any play, of course, with a bland blind suburbanite White Woman and White Man in sterile wedlock is prima facie a shoot off the root of Edward Albee’s 1961 “The American Dream” and many another absurdist drama of that era, Ionesco not least.

Nor is that all. To read “States of Shock” is to take a mishmash slalom slide through Beckett (“Endgame”), Genet (“The Balcony”), Kubrick (“Dr. Strangelove”}, Joseph Heller/Buck Henry (“Catch-22”), Ron Kovic/Oliver Stone (“Born on the Fourth of July”), Nancy Dowd/Robert C. Jones (“Coming Home”), and maybe even Erich Maria Remarque (“All Quiet on the Western Front”). For a few.

Be that as it may, for Cyndy Marion, who was born in Manhattan but is “still trying to find my culture,” Sam Shepard is a kind of beacon “because he’s trying to find what it is, really, to be American.”

This is her fourth staging of a Shepard. The others were “True West” and “A Lie of the Mind” (both for White Horse Theater Company) and “Fool for Love” (at Brooklyn College, for her MFA).

“I feel I know all the autobiographical elements in his plays, including this one. I don’t want to give anything away, but the Colonel is his father, who was in the Air Force in Guam when Shepard” — Samuel Shepard Rogers VII - “was born in 1943.”

Has she ever talked with playwright Shepard?

“I wish! I wish! Made quite a few attempts. Calls to his agent. Letters.”

At last report, Shepard was in Mexico, making a movie. That’s quite a difference from the tall thin shivering boy in a shirt and trousers, no coat, one winter’s night, being hugged on the sidewalk by his mama of those years, La MaMa herself, Ellen Stewart.

Where it all began, thirty-five years before 9/11.


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