Here, love is a painful display – full of rage and hate and need and slamming doors. It’s throwing yourself against a wall, hoping you’ll break. One of the successes of Daniel Aukin’s take on Sam Shepard (and he’s directed this play before) is how he finds the bruising hurt in the writer’s dusty nowhere of small-town tragedy.
The production opens on a staging that looks like a painting – begging questions. She sits on a bed, motionless, in a scrappy t-shirt, her hair obscuring her face; he’s slumped wearily against the wall, check-shirted and cowboy-hatted. A white-haired old man sits opposite the girl. He’s not quite part of the world of this motel-room set, dumped on the stage like a transient.
We stay this way for what feels like a long time, left to soak up the tension. And even when Eddie (Sam Rockwell) speaks, it’s faltering. So when it explodes, when May (Nina Arianda) hurls abuse and herself at him, it feels as though a storm has broken. They’re great together, Rockwell and Arianda. He turns being laconic into a fumble and she spits confusion.
Shepard drops us into the middle of a fight that’s clearly not happening for the first time. He’s tracked her down, as he has before; she accuses him of breaking a promise, of disrupting the meagre life she’s created. Straight out of the gate, they’re telling stories. And the hurt is as sharp as their words and actions – there’s a danger to Eddie, as Rockwell pointedly cleans his gun.
It’s done well, and the pain is so raw, the effect is like a sleight-of-hand: we forget we don’t actually, really know who they are to each other. Aukin keeps them in a bubble of conflict while the old man interjects with only Eddie apparently aware of him. So we wait as they wait, unable to quit each other. Off-stage car lights illuminate the windows as May rails at Eddie.
When the reveal comes – when Eddie, using May’s baffled, would-be date (who’s just arrived) as an audience-proxy, explains their tortuous relationship – the production slows. Shephard specialises in the kind of folklore-y personal histories of American community that would probably struggle to exist today, with the networked din of social media. Their mythic quality feels almost anthropological, like a slice of time.
Still, there’s something resonantly tragic about this cautionary tale: a bigamist, with two secret families, half-siblings who didn’t know until it was too late. The old man at the side of the stage (Gordon Joseph Weiss) is their father, perhaps a figment of their imagination, still trying to avoid the blame. He’s telling stories like Eddie and May are, as they compete with monologues about their experiences, as if to own the greatest share of the emotional devastation he’s wrought.
There’s a heavy-handed expediency to these scenes, of narrative positioning. The speeches flesh out the characters but weigh down the production, dissipating the angry energy of Rockwell’s and Arianda’s performances beneath blocks of biography. And, as Martin, May’s date, Tom Peliphrey is rapidly downgraded from comic foil to plot device.
But it all snaps back into focus with a kiss, a shuddering bang, like a car backfiring, and a red light that briefly saturates the stage. It’s a powerful moment in a production that successfully frames the scorching embrace of passion and hate that underpins the play like a distorted family photo. It brings a palpable sense of fatalistic relief and captures the inescapability of Eddie and May’s situation in the glare of a bulb flash.
While the play lurches a little towards the end, Shepard weaves compellingly sad poetry out of the wasted lives of his characters, which this production makes real and vivid. And if it starts with a tableau, it ends in blackness, with the cycle starting again as the old man’s voice rings out plaintively in sudden, fierce dark.