Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love

Cowboy Chic in Williamstown

By: - Jul 25, 2014

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Fool for Love
By Sam Shepard
Directed by Daniel Aukin
Scenic Design, Dane Laffrey; Costumes, Anita Yavich; Lighting, Justin Townsend; Sound, Ryan Rumery; Director of Production, Eric Nottke; Stage manager, Kyle Gates; Movements and fights, David Leong
Cast: Sam Rockwell (Eddie), May (Nina Arianda), Gordon Joseph Weiss (The Old Man), Christopher Abbott (Martin)
Nikos Stage
Williamstown Theatre Festival
July 23 to August 2

It would be difficult to imagine a more perfect production of Sam Shepard’s 1983 play Fool for Love.

There is a 34 year history of Shepard’s plays at Williamstown Theatre Festival. These include Operation Sidewinder (1970, Icarus’s Mother (1970), Angel City (1977), Tooth of the Crime (1978) and True West (2009).

Growing up in the American West and a farm in California Shepard (born 1943) moved to New York never to return to the arid landscape in this play a motel on the edge of the Mojave Desert.

As one of the leading playwrights of his generation he has created a distinctly American theatre based on the machismo and solemnity of Big Sky existentialism.

Confined to one act in a dismal motel room, a last stop for the down and out, we focus on the riveting and contentious interactions of May (Nina Arianda) and Eddie (Sam Rockwell).

In a pickup truck pulling a horse trailer this rustic macho dude has traveled some 2,000 miles to yet again track her down.

Rolled into a ball and withdrawn for a prolonged time at the beginning of the action we hardly get a glimpse of her face. The cajoling dialogue is entirely one sided as he wants back in her life. It is a complex relationship that started fifteen years ago in high school.

Slowly we come to know that they may be more than former lovers. Eventually, The Old Man (Gordon Joseph Weiss) seated as an observer outside the room begins to interact. There is the tragic revelation that he may be their father by different women. That makes them less than kissing cousins.

From the inception the sound design of Ryan Rumery and lighting of Justin Townsend prove to be crucial. The actors enter and take positions on stage, starkly and efficiently designed by Dane Laffrey, to a kind of electronic hum. Adding to the tension inside the motel there is the approach of cars perceived though effective and sharp lighting. When Eddie now and then exits to get something from his truck the sound of a slamming door is stunningly emphasized.

All of these aspects of stagecraft enhance the tension as May slowly unfolds and becomes animated in her on going conflict with Eddie. The arc of her escalating involvement is exquisitely fine tuned through the direction of Daniel Aukin.

As is typical of Shepard there is a rustic machismo about Eddie. He is a man’s man in a way that city dudes just ain’t. When May reveals that she is expecting a caller there is a discussion as to whether he is a guy or a man. Signifiers of manhood, exemplified when Eddie cleans a gun, puts on his spurs, or practices roping, are crucial to Shepard’s notion of cowboy chic.

We grew up on the Hollywood lore of the Wild West from the Lone Ranger to John Wayne. Significantly, Shepard has produced an oeuvre that deconstructs this legacy and mythology as hipster post modernism.

One also implies in the laconic cowboy persona either an inner strength or basic lack of intellect. Just what do they think about during routines of tending to livestock? Is there a kind of vacuity or Zen like peaceful contemplation of the void? Just what occupies the mind of a rancher home on the range in God’s country? What is the sound of silence?

The dialogue provided glimpses of that. May speaks of months of being abandoned in a broken down trailer in the middle of nowhere. After an endless wait for him to return she took off. She talks about not wanting to be wound up again in a yo yo relationship.

During the long drive to find her he thought about her body, particularly her neck. So that’s what’s been on his mind.

It’s wrong to assume that this cowboy and his girlfriend are dumb.

They may not exude worldly views but as the dialogue becomes ever crisper and more ferocious they are smart and clever. There is a primal survival instinct and scheming strategies to win in this death struggle conflict.

She threatens to kill him and his lovers including the Countess. Lured in for a makeup kiss she plays along and then knees him in the balls. He later slams her into a wall. While physically overpowering they are matched in a contest of wills and wits. They are dead even although the stunning performance of Arianda has the edge.

Escaping from him yet again we learn that she is getting her life together. Living in that dead end motel room she has a job as a cook. He scoffs at this news. When offered a slug of tequila she states that she’s on the wagon. She wants to move on but she may be a Fool for Love dragged in and then abandoned yet again.

For Eddie it is more about possession than love.

Often May escapes into the bathroom. This leaves Eddie for monologues or exchanges with the Old Man who is a figment of their imagination. Now and then, particularly at the dramatic climax, he breaks that wall and takes offense to how they have told his story.

When Eddie takes a trip to his pickup she hastily packs. It is clear that she only wants to escape. The bag is shoved out of sight when he returns.

May announces that she is expecting a guy. That initiates an exchange of just who and what he is. While Eddie has lovers he is angry about her taking one. He states that he will deal with and demolish the competition should it or they arise.

There are complications as to how May will introduce Eddie to a caller. Are they brother and sister? Cousins? Former lovers? Just what is their relationship? Isn’t it sin and incest? This is the heart and soul of Shepard’s austere play. Just who are they?

On stage dressing to go out May strips to black lace bra and panties. It was fascinating to watch her zip into panty hose then pour herself into a skimpy, sexy red dress and black heels. This is not the kind of outfit one wears for a movie date with a friend.

Through the entire play we never take our eyes off Arianda. She has a gorgeous, tall, thin body and, as in her Tony winning Venus in Fur, it serves as a dramatic instrument and weapon.

As a still young actress she has a mid career control of every aspect and nuance of her performance. She completely inhabits the characters and works them from the inside out. Every gesture advances the plot. Her performance goes far beyond delivering the lines. Rarely have we seen a more total physical and emotional presence on stage. Panther like she prowled the set.

The arrival of a car is seen. The Countess in a stretch limo may have arrived and Eddie is pissed to find that his windshield is shattered. They duck for cover when shots are fired.

When May screams a stranger busts through the door and tackles Eddie. Martin (Christopher Abbott) the gentleman caller is more than a match. In the land of the blind the one eyed man is king.

Calmed down the guys talk it through with shots of Eddie’s tequila. Martin, who proved not to be the brightest bulb on the tree, responds with thanks. Eddie always maintaining the upper hand in a sarcastic and demeaning exchange counters with “Don’t thank me. Thank the Mexicans. They made it.”

In this wordy play director Daniel Aukin maintains a steady pace managing to keep the firefly glowing in a bottle. During interview sessions prior to the opening he discussed working with Shepard on a new play this past year. This production confirms that he has unique insights on how to ride the bucking bronco of American theatre.