That includes any comforting notions of family, home, material success and even individual identity. “To me, a strong sense of self isn’t believing in a lot,” Mr. Shepard said in a 1994 interview with The New York Times. “Some people might define it that way, saying, ‘He has a very strong sense of himself.’ But it’s a complete lie.”
That feeling of uncertainty was translated into dialogue of an uncommon lyricism and some of the strangest, strongest images in American theater. A young man in “Buried Child,” a bruising tale of a Midwestern homecoming, describes looking into the rearview mirror as he is driving and seeing his face morph successively into those of his ancestors.
Though Mr. Shepard received critical acclaim almost from the beginning of his career, and his work has been staged throughout the world, he has never been a mainstream commercial playwright.
But several writers who grew up studying Mr. Shepard’s works said that they were struck by his boldness. Christopher Shinn, whose plays include the Pulitzer finalist “Dying City,” said he was reminded of Mr. Shepard’s gifts as a writer while watching “Buried Child” Off Broadway last year.
“I felt the play pulsing with Sam Shepard’s unconscious, and I realized how rarely I feel that in the theater today,” Mr. Shinn said on Monday. “Sam always wrote from that place — a zone of trauma, mystery and grief. Whether the play was more mainstream or experimental in its conception, he took the big risk every time.”
In the relatively naturalistic “True West,” two brothers of opposite types (brilliantly portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly in a Broadway revival in 2000) find themselves assuming the personality of the other. Roles within families portrayed onstage continually shift and dissolve, as in his great “A Lie of the Mind” (1985), the title of which might serve for every play he wrote.
As for love between a man and a woman, Mr. Shepard, whose long relationship with the actress Jessica Lange cast an unwanted spotlight on his private life, described that as “terrible and impossible.” He later explained: “It’s impossible the way people enter into it feeling they’re going to be saved by the other one. And it seems like many, many times that quicksand happens in a relationship when you feel that somehow you can be saved.”
That point of view received its fullest and most rousingly…