Purple Heart

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Bruce Norris’s new play, Purple Heart, begins with what seems a workable if formulaic premise. Set in 1972, it focuses on Carla, the widow of a marine killed in Vietnam. Shakily recovering from a nervous breakdown, she lives in a midwestern town with her adolescent son, Thor, and her mother-in-law, Grace–a woman with an uncanny ability to deliver pointed reprimands with infuriating calm. It’s a life of not-always-quiet desperation: Carla is trapped in a cycle of alcohol abuse, grief, anger, and low self-esteem. Torn by sexual longing for her late husband, Lars, she’s also filled with resentment that he’s viewed as a war hero while she knows him to have been abusive and unfaithful. From the moment we first see her lying on her living-room couch in a drunken stupor so deep she doesn’t stir even when Thor plays Led Zeppelin at full blast, we know that she sorely needs intervention.

It seems to appear in the form of Purdy, a soft-spoken Vietnam vet who drops in one day to visit. Apparently a friend of Lars’s, Purdy is as maimed by the war physically as Carla is emotionally: his right hand was blown off by a land mine. Carla at first brushes him off as just one more well-wisher she’d just as soon do without, but gradually she finds herself drawn to the young man, whose polite demeanor masks a disdain for cant and convention as bitter as–and far more articulate than–her own. “What an astonishing volume of horseshit people expect you to swallow,” Purdy says. “All these respectable citizens trundling up to your front door with their enormous creaking carts full of shit…thinking that they are in fact hauling an equal quantity of diamonds.”

Purdy’s vulgar candor is a refreshing alternative to Grace’s banal pieties. And with Thor setting all the clocks in the house back an hour (it’s the last weekend of October), Purple Heart seems to signal that it’s time for a change in Carla’s life. With her and Purdy’s burgeoning relationship established, the play promises to be a heartwarming tale of how two of life’s walking wounded overcome their own pain and Grace’s oppressive moralizing to begin a new life together.

Forget it. Having set up the audience to expect a feel-good romance with a smattering of social rebellion, Norris unveils a much darker resolution. Like America’s attempt to save Vietnam by destroying it, Purdy’s feelings for Carla are twisted: having lit a spark of new life in her–figuratively and perhaps literally–he extinguishes it, driving her completely into Grace’s clutches.

Purple Heart is packed with good writing. Norris, a onetime Chicagoan, is a fine actor–his performances in Remains Theatre’s Puntila and His Hired Man and The Mystery of Irma Vep are still vivid in my memory after more than a decade–and his script is packed with shrewdly written actors’ set pieces that display the same meticulous precision as his acting. Director Anna Shapiro’s excellent cast–Laurie Metcalf as Carla, Christopher Evan Welch as Purdy, Nathan Kiley as Thor, and the wonderful Rosemary Prinz as Grace–have a field day with the script’s rapid-fire repartee and pregnant pauses, its well-timed revelations and precisely placed emotional outbursts.

There are enough strong scenes and well-structured monologues here to satisfy the needs of any advanced acting class for an entire school year, yet they don’t add up to credible drama. Purple Heart feels contrived, its characters and their behavior mere devices manipulated by Norris to express what seems to be a hopeless view of love’s healing possibilities. (Love, Purdy says, is a word “best spoken through clenched teeth.”) Occasional gross or gruesome stage effects–Carla both barfs and hemorrhages onstage, and Purdy loses his prosthetic hand in an absurd accident–seem as fake as the games Thor plays with his rubber toys (a retractable knife, rubber vomit, a fake finger slicer, a whoopee cushion). The living-room set designed by Daniel Ostling is strangely empty, devoid not only of decoration but of signs it’s been lived in; the same is true of the play itself.

All plays are contrived, of course: their authors invent a set of characters and place them in conflicts intended to express a worldview. Why then is Purple Heart less weighty or believable than, say, A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof? I think it’s because Norris doesn’t care for his characters. Expressing an alienated view of life, he’s alienated from the story he’s telling–and so he alienates us from it too.

Alienation can be a useful didactic technique–by distancing the audience from the characters, a playwright can attempt to impart a social or political message. But Purple Heart offers no startling insight into the human condition. It puts onstage a set of dramatic cliches, then tears them down with a palpable, perverse pleasure. But the play’s climactic jumble of sexual and religious symbolism (“I’m innocent, Grace,” Carla cries as she’s hustled off to the hospital) suggests that Norris isn’t sure what to replace the cliches with–beyond the facile nihilism that currently cues the final blackout.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.