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Doing Shephard One Better

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Fool for Love

Playhouse,

at the Covenant Methodist Church

Playhouse's production of Sam Shepard's Fool for Love is not the work the author intended. But perhaps the playwright, one of the greatest living, could learn a thing or two from their version.

Shepard begins the script with a terse directive: "This play is to be performed relentlessly, without a break." In the original 1984 New York production, the cast obeyed to a fault--but then, Shepard directed. Attempting to prove just how tortured they were, May and Eddie, the pair of self-destructive lovers who give the play its title, spent most of their hour onstage literally flinging themselves against the walls of Shepard's sleazy southwest motel. That production dramatically demonstrated just how durable a set can be, but it had little to say about love and obsession. Relentless, yes--relentlessly tedious.

Perhaps scenic designer Joey Wade saw that production, because he's blown the motel walls right out of the theater, leaving only two enormous hunks of concrete into which doors have been set. Two massive wooden ceiling beams jut from the wreckage, colliding precariously above center stage. This room seems on the brink of collapse, echoing the emotional state of the lovers, who've spent two decades tearing themselves and each other to shreds.

With no walls to fling his actors against, director Eric Wegener turns them inward. His production has nothing to do with hysterical theatrics and everything to do with relentless, brooding anguish. Wegener pushes his lead actors--real-life husband and wife Carri and Tim Sullens--to such emotional extremes I wasn't sure they'd make it past the first ten minutes. In fact, Wegener begins his production at the kind of emotional pitch most companies need two hours to reach. The lights come up on Eddie, eyes full of tears, nose full of snot, so distraught he can hardly speak or stand. It seemed then, starting at such a high level, that Wegener had left his actors nowhere to go.

But he has an ace in the hole: the emotional reserves of his leads. Carri and Tim Sullens push themselves to the very limits of emotional and physical endurance, responding to each other with all the painful immediacy of a head-on collision. The entire histories of their characters are played out in simple moments--when May crumples after one of Eddie's many departures, for example, or when Eddie bristles while grilling May about her new boyfriend. Yet their performances are not indulgent in the least; this isn't the typical Chicago scream-and-slobber fest. These actors find nuances even at a fever pitch of despair.

Such an inward, psychological approach to Fool for Love creates some sluggish pacing early on, and it flattens much of Shepard's humor. As director Gary Sinise reminded us in Steppenwolf's recent Buried Child, Shepard chocks his plays full of exquisitely twisted comedy routines. Fool for Love is no exception:

Eddie: I missed you...Kept seeing you. Sometimes just a part of you.

May: Which part?

Eddie: Your neck.

May: My neck?

Eddie: Yeah.

May: You missed my neck?

Eddie: I missed all of you but your neck kept coming up for some reason.

Wegener does play the humor in the second half of the play--when it becomes unavoidable--and Brett A. Snodgrass's impeccable comic performance as May's good-hearted but hopelessly blunt boyfriend rivals even Ted Levine's masterful turn as Tilden in Sinise's Buried Child.

Fundamentally, Wegener ignores Shepard's penchant for mildly absurdist exaggeration, playing almost everything at face value instead. He can do this because his virtuoso cast invest so much of themselves in their performances that the exaggeration seems believable, even commonplace. These actors have the play in their bones; they don't have to do anything but live through it. In fact, John Rusk as the mysterious Old Man delivers one of the most moving performances I've seen in years, simply sitting on the sidelines and watching.

Purists will hate this production for obliterating Shepard's style. But in truth there's not much at stake in Fool for Love beyond May and Eddie's pathological relationship, which Wegener brings vividly to life--in a way the playwright himself could only approximate in his own production. This isn't Shepard. But maybe, just maybe, it's better.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brian McConkey.

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