Heart Wrenched

Lois Smith and Julianne Nicholson in Sam Shepard’s “Heartless,” directed by Daniel Aukin, running through September 30. | JOAN MARCUS

A clue to Sam Shepard’s latest play, “Heartless,” can be found in the Playbill under the cast list. It’s a carefully chosen quote from absurdist playwright Eugene Ionesco, lamenting that the world is an anguishing “desert of fading shadows.”

The challenge for director Daniel Aukin and the ensemble, it would seem, is to locate just enough color and richness in those shadows to craft a stimulating, satisfying drama. And for the most part, they deliver.

Without a doubt, “Heartless” is fraught with mystifying dark spaces, despite being set mostly outdoors in Los Angeles. In place of a coherent plot, we see fragments from a few hours in the life of a particularly strange and unhappy family.

Mable Murphy (Lois Smith) is the fractious mother who is heavily medicated and bound to a wheelchair due to a nasty fall from a tree. Her unmarried, depressive daughters, Sally (Julianne Nicholson) and Lucy (Jenny Bacon), still live with her — more from lack of ambition than from love. Mabel requires so much care they’ve engaged Liz (Betty Gilpin), a pretty nurse who may be pretending she’s mute.

Roscoe (Gary Cole), who has recently taken up with Sally, promises some hope. A handsome drifter in his 60s who left his wife and kids for a fresh start, he is an authority on Cervantes and Don Quixote. He makes them coffee and brings jelly donuts. Presumably Roscoe is based on the playwright himself, knocked off kilter after his split with longtime partner, Jessica Lange.

During the course of this two-hour play, mysteries deepen and reality is tested. A central question — how did Sally get an enormous scar down the center of her torso? — is answered (she had a heart transplant when she was ten), only to spark more questions.

This being Shepard, characters are hopelessly lost inside themselves. There are festering schisms among suffocating family members, highlighted by sporadic breaks in the action.

Aukin, one of the most in-demand directors in New York, is a master at drawing out these quiet pauses so they richly resonate. Are these silences painfully awkward? Absolutely. That’s the point.

If that weren’t disconcerting enough, “Heartless” treads into Ionesco territory, where the banal takes center stage and negative, raw emotion shoves aside conventional reality. We are all born to die. Existence is meaningless. Life always disappoints.

“I didn’t see it coming,” says Roscoe. “In a moment everything comes unraveled… it’s devastating.”

Shepard’s characterizations are puzzlingly complex. Occasionally, Sally breaks into song about staying alive or whips out her movie camera to make a documentary about Roscoe’s life and career. She imagines Liz as the girl whose heart saved her life.

The first-rate cast is up to the task of this delicately explosive material. Smith lends the bossy mother a disturbing air of menace. Nicholson is mesmerizing as the haunted sister who wonders if having a murdered stranger’s heart put inside her was a mistake. “I should be dead,” Sally declares. While somewhat too young for the part, Cole is persuasive as the rootless soul fighting to find his place in the world, dreaming the impossible dream.

In tune with this savagely introspective, surreal piece, Eugene Lee has invented a bleak, stylized landscape punctuated by two single beds, generic patio furniture, and two of the ugliest palm trees you ever saw. Surrounding the property is a steep slope leading up to a cliff overlooking a black void –– the valley of Los Angeles and the Pacific beyond.

Or, as Sally sees it, “The whole nasty panorama in one gasping breath.”

HEARTLESS | Irene Diamond Stage, Signature Theatre Company | 480 W. 42nd St. | Through Sep. 30 | Tue.-Fri at 7:30 p.m.; Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., Sun. at 2 p.m. | $25; signaturetheatre.org or 212-244-7529