Steppenwolf Theatre Company

As a playwright, Don DeLillo makes an excellent novelist. This isn’t as damning as it sounds. There’s some merciless, meticulous writing in DeLillo’s new Love-Lies-Bleeding. The language is interesting for the way it traps anguish in frozen, formal diction. The characters each have their own weight and mass. The premise provides an elegantly simple mechanism for exploring primal issues. It’s all very strong. It just doesn’t belong on a stage.

Or more accurately: it has no urgent reason for being on a stage. The celebrated author of such novels as White Noise, Libra, and Underworld hasn’t managed to turn his strong elements into a play, by which I mean a narrative that demands to be performed–that can’t be fully realized, understood, felt except through performance. Love-Lies-Bleeding is essentially a fiction in dialogue form. You can close your eyes, listen, and never feel as if you’ve missed anything important.

Indeed, you may find your eyes closing against your will. With nothing crucial to feed on despite highly competent acting and beautiful stage pictures, the optic orb all too easily opts out.

Love-Lies-Bleeding centers on Alex, who himself has opted out in more ways than one. A land artist–not unlike Michael Heizer, who’s spent the last 35 years building a single monumental earthwork in the Nevada desert–Alex retreated into arid isolation some time back. Now two strokes have left him helpless and very possibly brain-dead. He spends his days strapped into a wheelchair, twitching, staring, mewling, tended by his much younger fourth wife, Lia, and maintained by intravenous drip. Then Sean and Toinette, Alex’s grown son and second wife, arrive with a bottle of morphine and a plan. They want to euthanize the old lion, only they’ve got to convince Lia.

There’s a culture clash as these urban east-coast interlopers try to push their quality-of-life concepts on the devoted custodian for whom a vegetative Alex is better than none at all. Sardonically discussing the invalid as if he were already dead, Sean and Toinette come on like callous sophisticates. But before long it becomes clear that DeLillo isn’t interested in setting up heroes and villains or entering the contemporary debate over the good death. Sean and Toinette are allowed their own sense of devotion; they come to an understanding with Lia; and Love-Lies-Bleeding resolves into what it really wants to be–a meditation on what Welsh poet Alun Lewis perceived as the “single” poetic theme: “Life and Death . . . what survives of the beloved.”

And it’s an often lovely meditation at that. The script is chock-full of resonant metaphors and poignant exchanges. Alex’s great unfinished work, we’re told, is an empty room he was carving–like a burial chamber? a hidden heart?–into the core of a mountain. Sean argues that Alex in his broken state is “no longer and not yet.” Evocative though they are, figures like these are literary rather than theatrical. DeLillo’s lone attempt at visual storytelling is to divide the role of Alex between two actors, one (Larry Kucharik, with fakirlike discipline) playing the vegetable while another (John Heard) portrays the artist before and between strokes. Nothing comes of that conceit, though. The vegetable simply sits there vegetating while his comparatively healthy doppelganger talks to people. No exchange takes place; no transcendence is reached or frustrated; no equation is asserted, beyond the obvious: here’s Alex before, and this is him after.

Coincidentally, you can find out how a real playwright handles the same formal challenge by seeing Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, currently at the Apple Tree Theatre. Albee takes a comatose old lady and divides her up into her young, middle-aged, and dying selves, giving them rein not only to argue with one another but to scare the old lady’s son as he observes his deathbed vigil. The result is funny, profound, and visually dynamic. Theatrical.

The measured pace of Amy Morton’s distanced, deliberate Steppenwolf production tends to exacerbate DeLillo’s shortcomings, making his story that much less interesting for being slower and defeating his rare attempts at humor. The show’s far more glum than it has to be. Scenic designer Loy Arcenas injects a little interest by filling the back of the playing area with a glowing southwestern landscape, but the only other glow onstage comes from Martha Lavey’s Toinette. Alternately wised-up, rueful, and coquettish (when she’s flirting with the prestroke Alex), Lavey constitutes the production’s sole locus of individuated humanity. She makes Toinette a person.

Heard tries to generate a similar warmth for Alex, but in his case the impulse is wrong. Ornery and charismatic enough to have gone through four wives, visionary and arrogant enough to appropriate mountains for his art, Alex needs to be an outsize personality–part Picasso and part Howard Roark. That Heard renders him as nothing more than a kind of shambling nice guy subverts his touted mystique, deprives the production of a magneticcentral character, and begs the question of why we should be upset about his awful fate.

Ultimately Love-Lies-Bleeding reminds me of nothing so much as what old-time movie cops say when they’re breaking up a crowd at the scene of an accident: Nothing to see here. Move along.

When: Through 5/28: Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 3 and 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, upstairs theater, 1650 N. Halsted

Price: $20-$60

Info: 312-335-1650

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