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The Next Stage: The local theater scene reflects on playwright Sam Shepard

Charles Sykes, AP

Charles Sykes, AP

“It took a lot to process,” remembers Mel Day about learning that Sam Shepard had died. “We’ve been digging into [his work], and everything seemed so much more potent. It still does.”

Day is directing Dark and Stormy Productions’ upcoming staging of Fool for Love, Shepard’s 1983 play about a tumultuous reunion between two ex-lovers. The show was already due to be a highlight of the fall theater season, and will now have a bittersweet resonance in the wake of the playwright’s July 27 death at age 73.

Like many of Shepard’s plays, Fool for Love starts with familiar archetypes and then dives much deeper. “The play might have more kinship with Jungian dualities than it does with the Marlboro Man,” says local actor Terry Hempleman, who’s starred in the play twice at the Jungle Theater. “There’s stuff moving in his plays that is way down below the topsoil and even the first layer of rock. It’s like seismic movement.”

Dark and Stormy’s production will provide an occasion for audiences to appreciate Shepard’s talents—not that an occasion is necessary.

Shepard’s genius was multifaceted, says Josephine Lee, a scholar of American drama at the University of Minnesota. In addition to writing unforgettable characters, Shepard took the tradition of realism in American playwriting and gave it a new dimension.

“His plays take this realism and heighten it,” says Lee, “bring it to another realm... so suddenly things are happening onstage that almost seem magical. Even though they’re motivated by things that could be absolutely real, there’s a kind of mystical, symbolic dimension to his drama.”

“He was a unique voice that captured America, the westward expansion, the frontier, the cowboy,” says Hempleman, “and the dreams, disappointments, and failures of our civilization in the late 20th century.”

Shepard grew up in California and emerged professionally in New York. Although his work was often set in and associated with the American southwest, he spent time in Minnesota as well. For a period during his long relationship with Cloquet native Jessica Lange, the couple maintained a home in Stillwater.

“Some of his plays deal with a vision of the Midwest,” observes Lee. Shepard examines “the value of family and keeping the land in your family, and using the land to nurture yourself and your community.”

Day says she and her cast are mindful of the extra attention that will doubtless be paid to their Fool for Love, as the first local production of a Shepard play since his death.

“We all feel a little more pressure to get it right. Hearing that this theatrical giant has passed and working on one of his most famous pieces, you want to do it right for yourself as an artist, to serve him and his legacy—but also to serve the community.”

Fool for Love
Grain Belt Bottling House
77 13th Ave. NE, Minneapolis
612-401-4506; through September 16