KPBS AIRDATE: April 21, 1993
In the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Cold War, the nation is wounded. In “States of Shock,” Sam Shepard’s latest play, we survey the whole American landscape in the person of five characters: all the unhealed responses to overt and covert combat.
The White Woman and White Man just want to get on with their shopping. The shaky waitress, who can’t seem to keep things in balance, is named Glory Bee. She misses the “quiet times before the sirens.” She misses the Cold War with all (her) heart.”
The Colonel, dressed in full battle array, sword and all, pushes Stubbs in a wheelchair. During the war, a bullet went right through Stubbs’ chest to kill the Colonel’s son standing behind him. This is the anniversary of the son’s death and the Colonel is taking Stubbs out on leave from the hospital for their just dessert at Denny’s.
The Colonel has taken over Stubbs’ life, alternately treating him as son and prisoner. They drink a toast to the enemy that brought them together. “Aggression is the only answer,” says the Colonel. “A man has to have a hobby.” So he has taken away Stubbs’ identity and he whips him as we watch. The White people watch, too, but they’re only concerned with getting their clam chowder and getting out. Meanwhile, Glory falls for Stubbs, whose “thing” gets up at the end, and so does he.
Stubbs is the vet’s vet, the country’s unwalking wounded, with a hole in his middle. The military has lied to him; the white folks ignore him. The scene ends with gas-masks and a macabre song.
If things sound a little disjointed, they are. These aren’t characters so much as caricatures, symbols of a sick society. There is no resolution; there are no answers. Sometimes the monologues are so long and preachy you turn your attention elsewhere. It’s a short 70 minutes, but a long trip through the country’s ongoing hell.
This play and production are not for the faint of heart, who like their drama realistic and their plotlines as clear as their sightlines. But if you like your ideologies rifled at you instead of being spread neatly on a platter, you might be intrigued.
Director Joe Powers and his capable cast have given this just the right edge; the look is as scary as it should be: the White Man and Woman dressed and powdered to suit their monikers. Periodic sirens and red lights flashing and an annoying whistle that Stubbs blows every time he lifts his shirt to show his scarred midsection. The staging alternates between static and explosive, to match the meter of the piece.
Antonio T.J. Johnson ebbs and flows in the same way, from caring condescension to violence to desperation, in turn demanding submission and offering it. As Stubbs, Joe Powers conveys that vacant, haunted look of the traumatized and the tortured. The supporting cast is strong, as is the production.
It’s the play that’s flawed, disturbing at the cognitive level more than on the visceral or emotional plane. Along with the late-night Shepard one-acts, this wraps up the Ruse’s paean to one of America’s most prolific playwrights, the country’s nagging conscience, a chronicler of popular culture and American stereotypes. Postwar America does not paint a pretty picture.
“The middle of me,” says Stubbs symbolically. “The core is all dead.”
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.