Eddie simultaneously grapples with three tragedies. He has a complicated identity because of his complicated relationships with his family and lovers. Eddie is the son of a distant, unaffectionate, alcoholic father (the Old Man) who led a double life, the lover of a woman who is his half-sister, and the son of a woman who loved so hard that she killed herself upon discovering the Old Man's betrayal. Eddie's confusing and painful relationships contribute to his need to have ultimate control of every situation. Eddie instigates a full-blown power play by returning to May, repeating his cycle of abandonment and dependence with her.
His life is chaotic especially now that he is attempting to have relationships with both the Countess and May. His need for control and order manifests itself in his macho attitude and over-the-top need to have power over other people. Eddie transforms his macro mess into a microcosm of order in the way he tries to keep May at his mercy and Martin confused and frightened of him with his verbal attacks. Eddie transforms his pain into an often cruel, malicious, and manipulative self-empowerment. He becomes threatened by the idea of May living on her own, independently, without him. Though he has begun a relationship with the Countess, Eddie wants to have his cake and eat it to by keeping a door open in his relationship with May while continuing his Countess affair. Eddie is May's soul mate. They have a passionate attraction and magnetic feeling for each other that can be full of love or hate for one another. May will always be a part of Eddie and he knows that but is dealing with the fact that May, a mirror to his self Is not the right one for him anymore. He has returned not to get May as he says, but to try one desperate last attempt to try to be with her when he knows in his heart he has moved on and can never stay in one place for long.
Another way Eddie tries to control May is by maligning her for having a date with Martin. Eddie is a hypocrite and unknowingly so when he insults her and becomes jealous even though he has left May and conducted an affair with another woman.
Eddie shares several characteristics with his father, the Old Man, and fears that he is similar to his father. The Old Man has caused so much of Eddie's pain that he unknowingly repeats some of the Old Man's problems such as drinking heavily and having two lovers.
Eddie does not see his behavior as desertion or neglect. He has wanderlust. He follows his dreams whenever they take his fancy and he does not see May's point of view. He has a distracting, passionate feeling for May that overwhelms him but it is not powerful enough to make him stay in one place. It will never weaken but it will also never be enough to satisfy his attention completely.
May is thrown off-guard when Eddie arrives out of the blue and rekindles all of her recently subsiding emotions for him. She is madly in love with Eddie but it is a painful, confusing, consuming love. Her love for him does not fit into her life and the realistic issues that she must address to survive. May craves stability, affection, self-empowerment and independence. Eddie is contrary to any of these desires and in fact, prevents them from existing in May's life. She is torn between the fantasy and memory of their love and the reality and pain of the day-to-day struggle they encounter being together. Her love for Eddie takes May over so completely that it is like a sickness or madness. She cannot focus on anything else but the two of them and they way they have wronged each other and how strong they feel for each other when Eddie is around. When Eddie leaves, the void is so great that it is almost not worth the time he is present. May feels similarly to the way her mother felt about the Old Man. May's mother was so passionate about him that she became extremely depressed whenever he left.
May and Eddie see their past from different points of view. May sees the story of their past differently than Eddie because her mother was the one who the Old Man was cheating on with Eddie's mother. Her mother was the secret who was always left behind. This influenced May in subtle but definite ways and now influences her in her feelings for Eddie who abandons her much like the Old Man once abandoned her mother. Eddie does not see the situation of abandonment male abandonment from the same perspective as May. Because of this disparity, they interpret the status of their present situation and relationship from different, often conflicting vantage points. Though Eddie and May did not know they were related, May feels ashamed about their relationship. It continued after Eddie and May knew about their blood relation to one another. May attempts to deny and ignore the troubling familial aspect of their relationship. Eddie on the other hand seems to have accepted this problem. Making Eddie leave would allow May to continue to get over Eddie and to shut away the shame of their incest.
Surreal, funny, offering a contrary point of view, the Old Man only exists in May and Eddie's minds even though we see and hear him onstage. His presence adds to the heightened dream-like quality of the play. He talks to Eddie and May mostly when only one of them is in the motel room and the other is outside or in the bathroom. Because of this, he acts as an audience and response to the subconscious thoughts of Eddie and May. His conversations with May and Eddie seem to take place on the landscape of their inner thoughts made real on stage. For instance, he speaks to Eddie after Eddie has been tricked by May when she kisses him and then knees him in the groin. He also talks to May when she is crying over Eddie and moving slowly across the walls of the room alone.
The Old Man keeps them company when they are alone and yet haunts them. His presence is a reminder of their complicated past and the shame of their incestuous relationship. His drinking habit is repeated in the aggressive drinking of May and Eddie and his two-timing is repeated in Eddie's poor juggling of his relationship with both May and the Countess. The Old Man offers different points of view on May and Eddie's past and for the most part denies any fault in their present troubled state. He calls Eddie "a fantasist," perhaps a reference to Sam Shepard's father's attitude towards his son's role as a playwright who imagines things for a living and also Eddie's characteristic of being an idealist who imagines a better future for himself and is possible of believing in his own illusions.
The Old Man believes in illusions himself and that trait is repeated in May and Eddie. When he was younger, the Old Man convinced himself he could balance two lives without consequences. Now he believes that the unattainable woman of his dreams, Barbara Mandrell a picture in his imagination, is his wife. That is the perfect solution for the Old Man, to be content with a pretty fictional life that is pleasing to the imagination and impossible to hold on to for long.