Shepard's Ghosts

These days, I can't watch a Sam Shepard play without having my brain thronged with ghosts of Shepard viewings past. So as Chasm View's Fool for Love unfurled in front of me, I found myself clicking off the expected elements in my head. A cheap motel room. Check. Somewhere in the West, preferably the desert. Check. A guy in a cowboy hat, and allusions to what it means to be a man in contemporary America, somehow connected to the cowboy trope and also to popular culture in general. Check. Someone talking about walking into darkness. A sense of menace and periodic eruptions of an eccentric, sideways violence. Monologues that sound like musical riffs and make emotional, if not literal, sense. Check, check and check. Oh, and humor, speed, the sense of inchoate but powerful emotion stirring beneath the dizzying flow of words.

The play begins with three people in a motel room. The woman, May, is seated on the floor, withdrawn, almost catatonic. Eddie, the lover with whom she spent fifteen years, wants her back, but he's apparently left her several times in the past, and she doesn't trust the fantasy he's spinning of a trailer, a subsistence farm and a life together. She keeps hurling his affair with a woman called The Countess in his face. When he's loving, she rejects him; when he tries to leave, she clings. He pushes her around. She kisses him tenderly, then knees him in the groin.

The third person in the room, an old man in a rocking chair, is silent for long stretches of time, observing. When he finally speaks, we realize he's a ghost. It seems that only Eddie can see him, although periodically May, too, turns in his direction.

May has taken up with Martin, a gormless handyman who eventually arrives to take her to the movies. Eddie waylays him, by turns jocular and menacing. Spurred on by Martin's utter bewilderment, Eddie and May tell differing stories about their incestuous relationship with each other.

When I lived in New York, I haunted the fringes of Shepard land. I saw the playwright's earliest works at the Caffe Cino and at Theatre Genesis in St. Mark's Church in the Bowery. I remember a twenty-something Shepard sitting at the edge of the stage, feverishly playing the drums. Everyone knew he was touched with genius. He had taken up with a very young girl, perhaps seventeen, named O-Lan Johnson, and he gave her a role in his one-act, "Forensic and the Navigators," in which she taught a character named Emmet how to eat Rice Krispies ("So what you've had to do all this time is fill the bowl half full, add the milk, mush the half-filled bowl down into the milk so they get soggy and don't rise, then add more fresh Krispies on top of those..."). O-Lan was a round-eyed, full-cheeked gamine of a girl, and she delivered the lines with touching seriousness. She and Shepard married in 1969, and they had a son together.

I kept thinking about O-Lan as I watched Mary-Laurence Bevington on stage as May. Not that the two looked alike, but as actresses they shared a kind of stubborn, bewildered toughness. I wasn't surprised when I read later that Fool for Love had been written in 1983, the year Sam Shepard left O-Lan for actress and famed beauty Jessica Lange (the divorce took place in 1984). It isn't much of a reach to see Fool for Love as a recounting of the tortured breakup. "You're either gonna erase me or have me erased," May hisses at one point.

Bevington and Steven Scot Bono hold up their end of things well as May and Eddie, although you don't really feel a strong current of attraction between them. Still, their expressions of rage and grief are convincing. Benjamin Summers has excellent timing and makes Martin's literal-mindedness very funny. Bruce is a compassionate and sometimes authoritative old man, even if his pleas to Eddie to defend the male ethos sound a little querulous. Directed by Cathy Hartenstein, this is a creditable first production for Chasm View, though it does lack some of the wit and play of color I associate with 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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