The Late Henry Moss

Sam Shepard
W14 Productions
Southwark Playhouse (The Little)

Joseph Arkley as Ray and Jack Sandle as Earl Credit: Mathew Foster
Joe Evans as Taxi and Harry Ditson as Henry Credit: Mathew Foster
Chris Jared as Estaban and Jack Sandle as Earl Credit: Mathew Foster
Carilina Valdés as Conchalla Credit: Mathew Foster
Joseph Arkley as Ray Credit: Mathew Foster

Playwright Shepard had an alcoholic father and as suggested in the movie This So Called Disaster, which documented rehearsals for the first production with Nick Nolte and Sean Penn in 2000, this play may have an autobiographical element. However, it isn’t a piece of straightforward realism.

The way in which it explores conflicting memories and the machismo of family relationships may have its roots in reality but director Mel Hillyard frames it with a stylish theatricality and then beautifully blends its elements of symbolism and naturalism.

As they enter, the audience pass a Hispanic looking guy in a singlet playing an acoustic guitar. The set has faded red walls with a green dado and when the lights go down has something hidden behind a soiled curtain, a dirt-marked fridge and a chair and a couple of tables, one with a gas hob, which seem to be the only furniture with stuff on some high shelves, rather unrealistically, including a couple of small table lamps.

Cecilia Carey’s setting is full of textures that suggest life’s battering and colour that offers exuberance in presenting the pueblo-like home in New Mexico where army veteran Henry Moss, long-estranged father of Earl and Ray, has been living life out on his pension.

When the lights go down, the guitar changes its tempo and a female figure appears silhouetted against the light through a drape-covered doorway who begins a song which ends in a wild cry before a grey-haired drunk enters and they lead off in a wild tango. These, as is discovered later, are Henry (Harry Ditson) and his “girlfriend”, the whorish Conchalla (Carolina Valdés).

By the way, Henry is dead. Those are his boots sticking out beyond the edge of the curtain where his body has been lying for some days on top off a board that covers a bath tub.

Well-meaning neighbour Estaban, whom Chris Jared gives a naïve innocence, has been supportively bringing Henry bowlfuls of his Mexican soup. Worried about the old man, he contacted the brothers, who have now turned up.

Crazy Conchalla had already put an ad in the newspaper announcing the living Henry’s demise. Now he really is dead. Those are his lifeless feet sticking out from behind that curtain. But how did he die?

Ray hasn’t seen brother Earl for seven years, not since he dashed out of the house to escape from one of his father’s whisky-fuelled violent rages (though Earl at first denies doing so). Now he’s suspicious about what may have happened.

As the brothers argue over their different memories and what to do about dead dad, their relationship erupts into the same violence they experienced with him.

Henry and flesh-flaunting Conchalla also appear to act out in flashback what happened to Henry as reported by Estaban and a taxi driver (Joe Evans) from Albuquerque who is unwillingly involved after taking them off for a fishing trip.

The brother’s antagonism is thrown into high relief by the contrast with gentle Esteban and the bemused driver. Jack Sandle and Joseph Arkley play it with a powerful physical reality but at the same time suggest an emotional inheritance as unavoidable as that of Greek tragedy’s Atreus family.

Mel Hillyard’s direction carefully shapes the changing dynamics between them and with their father and keeps that delicate balance between the situation’s black comedy and the play’s other elements.

Shepard’s writing captures a feeling of real speech, of people with all their illogicalities, giving these two brothers a complexity that produces two stunning performances at the heart of a production that grips for 100 minutes without interval.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton