Early Shepard Fades

Ed Baierlein has mounted a clean, skilled, well-acted production of Sam Shepard's Fool for Love at Germinal Stage and, paradoxically, the production's strengths highlight the play's weaknesses.

The action takes place in a cheap motel room at the edge of the Mojave Desert, where May and Eddie are performing yet another sequence in a dance of attraction-repulsion that's been going on since both of them were in high school. Eddie, a cowboy, has come to the motel to reunite with May. She doesn't trust him, or herself when he's around. An old man sits silently in a rocking chair -- placed prominently front and center stage -- drinking. It seems he's a ghost. Outside lurks an enigmatic figure who periodically makes herself known through glaring headlights and explosions of sound. This is Eddie's other woman, who has come to track him down. May calls her the Countess. Finally, there's Martin, a mild, clueless groundskeeper, who arrives halfway into the play to take May to the movies.

Sam Shepard specializes in elliptical dialogue and ambiguous human interactions, but even if you don't know exactly what's going on in his scenes, the emotional dynamics are compelling. He is also known for his evocative monologues; reviewers have compared these to jazz riffs. Sometimes they're an obsessive meditation on an apparently trivial topic; sometimes they start out trivial and build to significance. They tend to include vivid descriptions and details -- cups of cocoa, smells, smoke, bottles of booze. They clarify, codify, concretize or provide salient metaphor; they somehow wrap up the play's meaning -- even if they ultimately leave that meaning enigmatic.

There are a couple of these monologues in Fool for Love. The Old Man -- who turns out to be May's father -- describes a long-ago trek across dark fields, holding and trying to soothe a crying baby May, and an encounter with a herd of cows. Later Eddie and May give sequential speeches about their incestuous background and the Old Man's two families. It's clear this patch of the dialogue is intended as revelatory. But ultimately, these verbal flights can't bear the weight Shepard has placed on them. The first in particular seems...well, sort of pointless. I mean, cows?

Which is not to say the play lacks wit. It holds your interest. It hints continually at a deeper meaning beneath the flying words. At first it seems that only Eddie can see the Old Man, but May eventually addresses him, and finally he begins a conversation with Martin. That has to mean something. But even as you worry away at the puzzle, you're fighting the suspicion that there's less here than meets the eye.

When I last saw Fool for Love, the actress playing May had an angry, ragged, unfinished quality that served the role well. Emily Paton Davies is talented, but she can't suppress her supple intelligence, and it feels wrong for the part. At the play's emotional climax Paton Davies seems annoyed and mildly upset, rather than anguished. Sometimes Michael Gunst's Eddie is an absolutely perfect mix of laconic toughness and peevish passivity, but sometimes the actor seems to lose focus. In all, there's something a little too muted about both performances, and you don't really feel a current of passion between Eddie and May. I think this is partly due to the text, which suggests that these are people who grew up so intertwined that without each other, they're irrevocably damaged. It's hard to get unfinished people down on the page and even harder to act them. Moments of threat are defused. The energy between the characters rises, then peters out.

Michael Leopard does sterling work as the ghostly but nonetheless very much flesh-and-blood Old Man, whose love story anticipates and mirrors his son's. As directed by Baierlein, he's the fulcrum of the play. Chuck Wiggington does more with the role of the hapless Martin than I'd have thought possible, giving him an unwitting dignity. Overall, this is an interesting but not entirely satisfactory excursion into early-1980s Shepard.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman

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