The real-life crime story of Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, two misfit Nebraska teens who killed eleven people in the early days of the rock & roll era, is Love Kills' inspiration. Jarrow wisely avoids the grisly details of how the two murdered their victims; it'd be difficult to empathize with the play's Charlie and Caril if you knew. Instead we see only the aftermath of their capture, and in flashback, the initial hours of their courtship. During the course of this one night, the relationship of upright citizens Merle and Gertrude is balanced against that of the bloodthirsty younger couple. But since Merle's stated intent is to pound Charlie until he confesses, bloodthirsty may be in the eye of the beholder.
Charlie, played by Philip Leveling with disconcerting, frenetic energy, is a mess physically and psychologically. His face battered and bloody courtesy of a beating by the arresting officers, Charlie is part James Dean-inspired bravado, part lost little boy who disappears into his imagination when the real world becomes overwhelming. Leveling has a strong voice, and his gestures become rock star swagger when he cuts loose, a fine contrast to his twitching, hunch-backed posture when at rest.
Zachary Allen Farmer plays Merle with the stolidness of the prison walls. Taciturn and gruff, Merle's certainty -- in Charlie and Caril's mutual guilt, in himself -- is the bedrock upon which he stands. And yet Farmer's steady, glowering performance finds the humanity in Merle. Hands jammed in his pockets, his eyes shielded by heavy glasses, Merle looms over his prisoner as the embodiment of the authority Charlie rages against; Merle adopts the same pose in front of Gertrude, and he seems guarded, almost afraid. When he gruffly tells her, "I'm not heartless," he's more defensive than confident.
And then Merle and Gertrude (Alison Helmer), sing "Someday" together, and this frumpy Midwestern couple morph into John Doe and Exene Cervenka, wounded hearts not quite talking about the same thing, and you begin to think that whatever it is that drives Merle to be a hard man is as damaging as the thing that drove Charlie to explode into murderous action.
Love Kills continues Thursday through Saturday through October 24 at the Washington University South Campus Theater (6501 Clayton Road; 314-534-1111 or www.newlinetheatre.com). Tickets are $10 to $20.
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