Sam Shepard's Fool for Love defines "dysfunctional relationship"

Crazy in love—or just crazy? Stacia Rice and Peter Christian Hansen

Crazy in love—or just crazy? Stacia Rice and Peter Christian Hansen

Stories of forbidden love make up at least a vertebra or two in the spine of works for the stage, for the obvious reason that raging, unbridled passion lends itself to a ripping drama. Sam Shepard's Fool for Love raises the stakes by tearing through a very particular taboo, and this Brian Balcom-directed Gremlin Theatre production captures a great deal of its intensity, desperation, and outright weirdness.

The action occurs in a seedy motel room somewhere in the West, where Eddie (Peter Christian Hansen) is consoling May (Stacia Rice), whose head is drooped, her face obscured by a shock of dark hair. It turns out that Eddie has just hauled his ass more than 2,000 miles to reunite with May, and that his romantic résumé includes vast swaths of abandonment, womanizing, drunken misbehavior, and no doubt other varieties of caddishness.

It's also clear from the start that they both are explosive nut cases, and Hansen and Rice sell the notion with enthusiasm. Eddie and May hash out their problems with inarticulate fury, their twangy pronouncements rarely delivered at less than a lusty yell, all the while circling each other with sexual heat. But it's the kind of sexual heat that leads to such things as, for instance, Eddie leaving the room and returning with a shotgun and a bottle of tequila (from which he begins to heartily imbibe).

You're tempted to advise May and Eddie to just drive at high speed into the Grand Canyon and be done with it, but Rice and Hansen deliver their characters with apt notes of insecurity and vulnerability, giving us the sense that the dark sun burning between them might be fueled by something more than conventional man-woman friction. And then there's the matter of the old man (Ed Jones) sitting in the corner in a rocking chair, watching all, making occasional wry pronouncements, and generally ramping up the creep factor by several orders of magnitude.

Eddie takes a couple of shots at convincing May to join him in a trailer on a plot of land in Wyoming (the prospect of raising chickens in this Western idyll causes May, from behind a locked bathroom door, to uncork a bellow that fully conveys her dislike of live poultry), but we're well past happy endings from the moment the lights go up. When May mentions the possibility of a gentleman caller arriving soon at the motel, the possibility of multiple homicides, or at least a lot more drunken screaming, seems inevitable.

May's suitor does indeed show up (after a bit of offstage gunplay in the motel parking lot, indicating someone else with an immoderate approach to matters of the heart), in the form of Martin (Seth Patterson), whose anticipation of a date with May quickly transforms into the apprehension that he has walked into a role in the wrong show. And still we have the old man, who by now has dropped a bombshell that goes miles toward explaining May and Eddie's inflamed, impossible attitudes toward each other.

If you don't know the play, I won't spoil the secret these characters harbor (which Martin soon becomes involuntarily aware of). Shepard steers events into territories of weird transgression, and Rice and Hansen handle long memory monologues with facility and feeling. It turns out this is a story of forbidden love of more than one variety, spiced with the symbolism of America's vast spaces and infinite possibilities.

By the end, we're left with conflicting narratives, unquenchable desires, and the past's stubborn tendency to not resolve itself. In other words, life.