Seeing Shepard, Missing Blei in Door County

Both find a home on the pennisula

I hadn’t been to Door County in decades, and had never seen live a play written by Sam Shepard. So when I heard the Third Avenue Playhouse in Sturgeon Bay was doing a production of Shepard’s “True West,” I thought, “Why not?”

Mrs. Moe is always ready for an adventure, so we secured tickets for the last Saturday performance on April 8 and drove up a night early.

Sam Shepard may be best known these days as an actor—he earned an Academy Award nomination for “The Right Stuff”—and for his 30-year relationship with the actress Jessica Lange.

But Shepard is foremost a writer, of plays—he won the Pulitzer Prize for “Buried Child”—and short fiction. He’s written several books of short stories and in February published a new book of long fiction, titled “The One Inside.”

I’ve read a lot of Shepard, especially the stories. They are spare, haunting, sometimes very funny, often autobiographical and set in the American West.

His 1996 collection, “Cruising Paradise,” includes numerous stories about going to Mexico to act in a movie. (A new Shepard biography, “Sam Shepard: A Life,” by John J. Winters, says the film was 1991’s “Voyager.”)

Shepard rarely flies and the first of these stories, “Spencer Tracy is Not Dead,” begins with this: “This morning I am leaving by car for Mexico to shoot a film directed by a German, written by a Swiss, photographed by a Greek, with a crew of Frenchmen and Italians. It should be interesting.”

Of the Shepard plays I’ve read, “True West” is my favorite, and I was delighted to see it was being produced in Door County.

The bard of Door County
We enjoyed walking around Sturgeon Bay while waiting for the performance that evening. On Third Avenue, the street that gives the playhouse its name, there were pubs, galleries, shops—even a Younkers store.

We stopped in Book World—it’s always a nice surprise to find a book store these days—and marveled at the extensive magazine collection, the biggest I’ve seen since Pic-a-Book on State Street closed.

Alas, I could find no books by my late friend Norbert Blei. The pleasant and helpful young man behind the counter had not heard of him.

Well, I thought, Norb would find a way to chuckle at that. Norbert Blei was nothing less than the bard of Door County, a transplanted Chicagoan who in novels, stories, essays and poems captured Door and the world beyond with precise language, inspired imagery and a restless, indomitable spirit.

Norb died in April 2013 at the age of 77. We met a decade earlier after he sent me a kind note about a book I wrote on Chicago columnist Mike Royko. Norb knew Royko. My favorite of Norb’s books—Door County residents may take umbrage—was a collection called “Chi Town,” a collection of profiles of the colorful characters, including Royko, in his native city.

I meant to get up to Door to visit Norb—I never did—but he came to Madison occasionally, and we’d meet for a drink at the Laurel on Monroe Street or Nick’s, his preferred State Street restaurant. Norb favored grit over glitz.

Norb Blei was also a celebrated teacher of writing. One of his most accomplished students is the Middleton author Alice D’Alessio. (She has a terrific new poetry collection, “Walking the Tracks,” that’s well worth seeking out.)

In our seats for the play
Shepard’s “True West” premiered at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco in 1980.  The play concerns two brothers, Austin, an established screenwriter, and Lee, a roguish drifter with a penchant for burglary. The setting is their mother’s home, where Austin is house sitting. By play’s end, things will be turned upside down to the extent that Lee has a Hollywood producer interested in a play he’s writing, while Austin has stormed into the night and returned with an armful of toasters he’s purloined from nearby homes.

“There’s gonna be a general lack of toast in the neighborhood this morning,” Austin announces, as Scene 8 begins.

The Third Avenue Playhouse production was wonderful, the setting intimate—less than 100 seats—and everyone involved clearly passionate about making the night a success. The playhouse’s co-artistic director, James Valcq, was helping with concessions.

After the final curtain, the actors lingered in the lobby and chatted with audience members. Jonathan Wainwright, who played Austin (Doug Mancheski was Lee) told me he’d never done a Shepard play before, but always wanted to do “True West.”

My guess is Sam Shepard would have approved. The playwright’s mother’s family has roots in Door County, and the narrator of “Place”—a story from “Cruising Paradise”—talks about burying his mother’s ashes in a “little cemetery overlooking the hayfields of Door County.”

I know Shepard would appreciate this. Slipped into the program of “True West” was a note thanking the show’s sponsors, as well as “all those who donated a toaster to this production.” 

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. See his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.   


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