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Sam Shepard: An American Dream

Reflections on Sam Shepard, Hillbilly Elegy, and the importance of True West.

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The news of Sam Shepard’s recent passing left me ruminating. And not in the way many celebrity deaths do to some degree, but in a way that deserved to be explored, challenged, and ultimately, offered closure. Last summer, I picked up the popular ‘Sam Shepard, Seven Plays’ in a used book store in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which at the time, simply represented a show of support for the charming shop, as well as a comforting catalyst to face a long ride back to New York City. But that’s not to say I didn’t know what I had purchased. Reading plays has always provided me with a satisfaction and sense of pleasure I can only assume relates to the quickness with which I’m able to digest them, paired with a seasoned appreciation for the format. So, why had Sam Shepard and I never crossed paths? It unearthed in me a bit of embarrassment and I couldn’t wait to experience what was to be revealed in the next 368 revered, Pulitzer-Prize-winning pages. I was unaware that, upon its completion, I would not only feel overwhelmingly invigorated, but a rooted rapture for a new favorite playwright.

The collection of plays starts with True West. I’m not sure if it’s the affection I felt for this particular piece being the first I’d ever read by Mr. Shepard, but it stuck with me longer than any other. Every scene, every shift in plot seemed so meticulously crafted to create an expert interpretation of the story. It managed to juxtapose darkness with delight, absurdity with authenticity, and humor with horror…all while embracing one set and two acts. But more than its clever configuration, the play featured fully developed characters that skillfully sustained a connection, whether it be through their raucous realness or convoluted reality of the American Dream. I’m one reader who didn’t know these characters, who didn’t have a similar upbringing, who had never been in the presence of a desert, but who's undivided attention they captured as strongly as their insecurities.

I went to see a production of True West last night at New City Players, a local theater in South Florida. I didn’t know what to expect as I had only interacted with these characters in their original home on their respective pages. It was moving and refreshing and exhilarating in the way only a live interpretation can be. And it felt more relevant than ever. A few weeks prior, I had read Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, a book that describes itself as a memoir of a family and culture in crisis, and sets out to provide an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of the country. I couldn’t help but relate the two. True West, as Shepard intended it, mocks the Hollywood obsession with the true-to-life story. But today, it feels like its purpose has shifted, and has become arguably even more important. These characters are real and are a genuine representation of a real world I want to try and understand outside of the universally relatable flaws. A world far from my home in the New York metropolitan area where, from the start, you can find yourself one step behind your friends whose family’s lives are absent of drugs, alcohol, and unemployment. Where receiving a college education can simultaneously foster the biggest sense of pride and a massive threat to those who couldn’t get there. A world that’s oftentimes fueled by bitterness, victimization, and unownable regret.

In the last several months, there has been so much conversation around how art should be used, more than ever, to make a thought-provoking statement in response to our country's troubled times. In addition to new, provocative works, I hope to see a slew of Shepard revivals in the near future, since this always felt like his mission. As a playwright, he achieved the highest honor - the meaning behind his work is continuing to evolve with time. At least we know America(n theater) has always been great.

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