Actress Becca Chapman is preparing to meet one of this country’s great playwrights on his own violent terms.
“Our artistic director, Garrett Prejean, told me a quote from Sam Shepard. ‘I’m not doing this to vent demons. … I want to shake hands with them.’ That’s when I knew that we needed to do his work.”
Chapman, an Elm Theatre ensemble member and its education director, will take the stage at Mid-City Theatre Thursday in the pivotal role of the physically, emotionally and mentally damaged Beth in Shepard’s gritty and deeply American “A Lie of the Mind.”
Despite being savagely beaten by her husband Jake, Beth is not only a fully realized character but also an emblem of a play whose core is fragile, damaged, resilient and heartbreaking.
She becomes the unifying force in a tale of two unraveling families.
It is character type that is not an anomaly in the world of Shepard.
And for the production’s director Joe Funari, it’s just those sort of characters that attracts him to the work.
“Sam Shepard’s plays make us uncomfortable, force us to think and confront us with images of life that are acutely unsettling,” Funari said.
“Shepard’s characters act out, lashing out vocally and physically, seemingly without concern for how this affects the victims of their onslaught, and they relish it. They embody and celebrate all the beautiful imperfection that makes us human.”
The difficulty in playing Shepard’s characters is maintaining the balance between capturing the archetypal vision the playwright seeks to project while never losing the deep, broken humanity he infuses into the populations of his work.
That sort of challenge is exactly why Chapman joined The Elm.
“The Elm is all about embracing everything you are afraid of as an artist. Every season I look at the role I am about to play, and I say to myself, ‘God. I don’t know if I can pull this off,’ ” Chapman said.
But, she added, “You have no choice but to throw all of yourself in it. It’s like willingly going into the mouth of the wolf!”
Though considered one of the most important American dramatists of the last century, Shepard’s plays are relatively unfamiliar to a New Orleans audience that rarely sees his work and knows him more from iconic roles like Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff” and Gen. Garrison from “Black Hawk Down.”
Yet, in between the star turns and character work, Shepard has managed to craft one of the most important catalogue of American plays, including “True West” and “Fool for Love.” He spins tales set in a mythic, romantic and bloody West that have influenced many a contemporary playwright, including Tracy Letts and the 1990s second wave of angry British playwrights.
“Shepard’s plays are odd, absurd, disturbing and explosive. They are fables that explore, chastise and celebrate what it means to be uniquely American. They question American ideals and challenge deeply held truths,” Funari said.
“They tell stories of dysfunctional people and families in mortal conflict and yet can be surprisingly hopeful.”
Chapman feels Shepard’s work fulfills her company’s mission to provide actors the opportunity to take risks.
“I feel Sam Shepard has a powerful and honest American voice. It’s not just about the characters but the family structures and landscape they exist and function with in,” Chapman said. “It’s raw, honest and visceral. The spirits of the characters are fighters that are rooted somewhere between pride and fear and the willingness to push beyond their limits.
“It has been a gift to exist in the world of his play.”
Jim Fitzmorris writes about theater. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The Elm Theatre presents Sam Shepard’s ‘A Lie of the Mind’
Where: Mid City Theatre 3540 Toulouse St.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 12-Oct. 4
Tickets: $20, www.midcitytheatre.com, (504) 488-1460