If only Sam Shepard had never gone to Hollywood. He was such an amazing playwright before fame, fortune and Jessica Lange got ahold of him. Why area theater companies don't produce his early plays more often is a mystery; they're beautiful, weird and perceptive, and they offer actors plenty of art-meat to gnaw on. So the Ad Hoc Theatre Company's captivating production of Shepard's Fool for Love is definitely good news.
The play, written in 1979, feels like a Greek tragedy set to a country-Western song. As the story opens, Eddie sits yanking viciously on a bridle in a run-down motel room somewhere in outer Texas. His girl, May, won't speak to him, and a character Shepard calls "Old Man" sips whiskey, watching the two like a spectator at a wrestling match. Eddie begs May to talk to him, threatens to leave her, offers to make her tea. She alternately clings to him and spurns him. And the whole play repeats over and over the push-pull cycles of anguished love.
Right away we know that Eddie and May cannot live together. But neither can they keep apart. Again and again Eddie has returned like this--and left after a while for parts unknown and women of all persuasions. May languishes, sick with desire and unbearably angry with him.
It all sounds pretty sick, and it gets sicker when we learn that the Old Man is their father (different mothers, of course). The pair grew up never knowing about each other. They met and fell in love as high school kids, and even the knowledge of their near kinship was never enough to keep them apart--or together. The tragedy at the core of their experience is revealed at the end of the play, as May's abandoned boyfriend, Martin, witnesses the truth in surprised, kindly silence.
Kevin Bartlett leads the small cast with a colorful, ingenious performance as Eddie. He keeps a tight lid on a boiling soul, blowing off steam in often hilarious, sometimes frightening explosions. Every lie Eddie utters, and every truth, too, sounds equally plausible in Bartlett's accomplished delivery. Ellen Orloff has exquisite moments as May, though her performance is sometimes self-consciously mannered. Hal Terrance makes himself heavily present and soundly diabolical as the Old Man, and Richard Cowden fully fleshes out this fine cast as the baffled Martin.
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In Shepard's tale of unresolvable love and inherited woe, "the sins of the father" are visited upon the children by the truckload. It's a bizarre story--minimal in plot but excessive in feeling, unlikely and yet completely believable. Shepard's way with words always includes poetic metaphors and long, drawn-out speeches that approach the aching heart of his story the longest way around. And it's in these long speeches that he lays bare the undeniable madness of late-twentieth-century American life. Whether he is talking about the twisted machinations of Hollywood (Angel City), the threat of nuclear annihilation (Icarus's Mother) or, as in this play, the bankrupt morality of the American West, his early storytelling is as compassionate and comic as it is despairing and unrelenting.
This compassion for his dumb, suffering characters saves Shepard's plays from cynicism and makes them profoundly gratifying. Even when he exposes greed, egomaniacal self-concern or any other of the seven deadlies, he never sermonizes. And even when he hangs one character up for ridicule, another poor, foolish dolt will always be there to draw on our tender mercies.
Fool for Love, through April 27 at the Shop, 416 East 20th Avenue, 778-7724.