at Chicago Dramatists Workshop

The characters of Red Cross and Chicago, two early Sam Shepard efforts, are just so many escape artists, imagining their ways out of confining circumstances. Though Shepard’s early plays teem with overblown speeches that threaten to take his characters over the top, they’re catnip for actors. The players at Kamijo clearly relish these roles, and their rawness confers on Shepard’s sophomoric excesses of the 60s a crude conviction all their own.

The great strength in Donna Northcott’s staging of Chicago is Circus Szalewski’s bravura acting from inside a bathtub. In Temporary Theater’s The Lennon Play: In His Own Write Szalewski proved he could become a Beatle, but the wily actor comes into his own with this Shepard surrogate named Stu. A fantasy-mongering trickster, Stu plays with a toy boat in his tub as he uses his mouth to talk away every connection he has to the people around him.

Depicted by Daryl Heller with enigmatic loveliness, Stu’s girl Joy (a stand-in for Patti Smith?) has just gotten a job and is about to leave for Chicago. Stu can’t deal directly with this apparent abandonment, and from his tub he conjures up ever wilder dream images, of pell-mell trains, of fishermen indulging in orgies while their boats rot from neglect, of a wooden house that is choked, overheated, and finally incinerated by the rugs that fill it up.

As Stu chatters on, assorted friends of Joy’s arrive, each wearing sunglasses and carrying a fishing rod or a suitcase. Thinly hiding their contempt for Stu, they indulge in small talk, then move on to tell Joy good-bye.

Finally Stu launches into a haunting metaphor of a water world where the last phosphorescent points of light are dying away. The other actors move downstage to cast for phantom fish as Stu symbolically pulls himself out of the tub and teaches himself how to breathe again.

At the time, this earthy surrealism must have felt very close to the playwright, but it’s fairly inaccessible to us, so many years later. Still Szalewski, as Mark Nutter did in the mid-70s, brings an intensity and drive to Stu that turn his escapism into pure poetry. Szalewski may underplay the man’s desperate avoidance but he culls Shepard’s images like a gardener.

If anything, Red Cross is even more dreamlike and symbol-ridden. Its setting is a rural sanatorium for the mentally disturbed; here everything is as white as the giant parachute that covers the floor. (All this bleak sterility forms an effective contrast with the title symbol, which appears in the play’s last moment.)

The inmates are Carol, a morbid young girl who’s convinced that her head could explode at any moment, and Jim, a young man who’s certain that the crab lice that have infested him for more than a decade are slowly draining his blood and energy.

Carol manages a brief escape by blurting out an extended fantasy about what seems to be out-of-body skiing. She leaves and, busily scratching, Jim strikes up a one-sided conversation with the shy maid who’d rather change the beds and get out. He tells her about his crab colonies and for emphasis stomps on a louse. Then he launches his confessional escape, a Red Cross swimming lesson where he and the maid lie on the beds and imagine they’re swimming across a lake. As he urges her to coordinate strokes and breathing, he underlines the message that “the whole thing is working at once.”

The maid quickly finds herself captured by the fantasy, so much that she imagines she gets a cramp and drowns. She berates Jim for paddling ahead of her while she flounders helplessly. But Jim makes so eloquent a case for drowning, for letting go as the water gently takes you, that the maid overcomes her hydrophobia.

Mitzi McKay’s staging never rises much above the level of inspired actors’ exercises, but with Shepard’s preference for rhetoric over scene-building this declamation is almost poetic justice. Ted Koch’s Jim shows a solid grounding in the physical quirks of the walking wounded, though he misses the man’s manic need to escape. Joanne Arledge is a bit too level-headed for Carol. Kate Harris plays the impressionable maid.

The early Shepard of these psychedelic plays has always struck me as precious, a bit too dazzled by his own imagery. But in Red Cross and Chicago are the seeds of plays to come in which “the whole thing is working at once.”