At the beginning of Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love,” Eddie (Jason Lythgoe) nervously tells May (Joy Kilpatrick): “I’m not going anywhere.” Perched in a seedy desert motel, they already seem nowhere – or anywhere in the American West.
As Shepard’s angry one-act play unfolds, Eddie and May might as well be on the edge of a cliff. Their combative, on-and-off-again love affair has been generating passion, distrust and hatred for 15 years.
In a taut 75-minute production, the Durango Arts Center Theatre has brought Shepard’s telling 1983 drama to life. It’s now considered an American classic, a dark look at American love in the late 20th century. It originally opened at Shepard’s home base, the Magic Theater of San Francisco. When it opened Off Broadway at Circle Rep, Frank Rich of the New York Times referred to Shepard’s battle of the sexes as “an indoor rodeo” – “feisty, muscular and sexually charged.”
Critics generally agree that Shepard’s sardonic view of American romance offers a counterargument to Hollywood’s spun-sugar. Shepard’s contrast between gritty reality and fantasy also plays out ruefully in this mid-career work. He starred in the 1985 film with Kim Basinger, directed by Robert Altman. Shepard is now 73.
Directed by Theresa Carson, artistic director and theater manager at DAC, the production uncoils in explosive stops and starts. Lythgoe and Kilpatrick convincingly stalk each other, alternating as predator and prey. Goading, seducing or mocking, they mutually taunt and tease until an emotional bomb explodes, often with physical consequences.
Into this Darwinian corral two other characters intrude: Martin (Geoff Johnson) and Old Man (Jot Stephens). Martin arrives for a movie date with May only to enter a Mojave snake pit in full throttle. Martin instantly challenges Eddie, who bests him and ups the tension by implying he and May are lovers with a long history and family ties.
The story of their shared father, the Old Man, and different mothers unspools in poetic, storytelling monologues that change the pace, tone and rhythm of the play. The Old Man functions as a ghost who comments on family secrets. Eddie and May spin different versions of what happened, and Shepard wraps up all the desert strands with a few new twists that will send you out of the theater talking about the implications.
Eric Bulrice’s set and technical direction may appear spare and down-home, but there’s subtlety in the lone window, two doors and crumbling walls. To heighten the effect of a bleak motel room as metaphoric jail cell, Bulrice has magnified every door slam to suggest a prison. Leann Brubaker’s lighting heats up and cools down according to brawler’s rules, and Karren Little’s costumes are pitch perfect, from Eddie’s rodeo belt, May’s black bra, Martin’s suspenders and the Old Man’s crumpled hat.
Credit Carson for a fluid performance overall. Throughout, she has convincingly choreographed the push-pull dance of jealousy and obsession. Particularly effective are the monologues that re-create childhood memories. And the Old Man’s final intrusion into the realistic space of the motel room weaves fantasy back into the troubled and misguided ways in which we Americans process our lives.
Last August, Carson orchestrated a moving production of “Rent,” the through-sung rock opera from 1996. It, too, is now considered a serious American classic for mature audiences. Let’s hope Carson and the DAC are at the front end of a Durango tradition.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.