The theme of a man and a woman who can’t live without each other and can’t live with each other is as old as theater. Often enough it has been played for comedy, as in the couples in Noel Coward’s Private Lives or Present Laughter. But not in Sam Shepard country. In Shepard’s Fool for Love, now playing at the Cumberland Theatre, Eddie and May (Tom Dacey Carr and Kimberli Rowley) have an indissoluble and passionate attachment that cycles between love and hate, need and aversion, abandonment and return. Their cycle, full of verbal, emotional, and physical violence, has been playing out for 15 years. They tear each other apart, and come back for more. There is no end in sight.
For the two principals, this is a highly physical show. It’s not just the violence – May kneeing Eddie in the groin in the midst of a kiss, Eddie picking May up over his shoulder and throwing her onto the bed, etc. It’s that their physicality largely defines their characters. Eddie’s body is all cowboy: lanky, leaning on the doors, sitting on the floor with legs spread, casually throwing his hat on the furniture, occasionally quiet in repose. May, when we first see her, is curled up in a ball on the floor, seemingly in silent grief. Later, especially after a costume change into a red dress and high heels, she stands tall in a sexualized show of defiance. Other times she slumps in weary acceptance. Carr and Rowley inhabit their characters’ bodies in a way that makes Eddie and May unmistakably real.
Carr’s and Rowley’s vocal range is a wide and varied as their physicality. They can shout and scream, or they can be quietly reflective. Their speech is unfailingly appropriate to the moment.
Eddie and May act violently to their physical environment, not just to each other. They do not close doors, they slam them. They do not place cups or other props onto the table, they jam them down hard. The percussive banging of the set and props is a fitting accompaniment to the harsh interaction of the characters.
From time to time Eddie and May interact with the third character on stage, The Old Man (Phillip Schroeder). He generally sits in an easy chair down left in low light, looking grizzled, sipping a drink, and watching the action. Watching from afar, and not being actively involved in the lives of others, seems to have been his modus operandi. As the play proceeds, he talks more and more with Eddie and May. He speaks to them as their father, which he may well be, although he claims not to be sure. He doesn’t seem physically in the space with the other characters, being a somewhat spectral mental presence (though Eddie does refill his glass at one point). His history is that of a walk-away man from two women, the mothers of Eddie and May, respectively. Schroeder’s heavy-set, slow-moving physicality works well for his character.
The last character to be introduced is Martin (Erik Alexis), a mild-mannered, clueless gent who arrives to take May on a movie date. Martin seems likely to be a cousin of Mitch from A Streetcar Named Desire or The Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie.
His most active moment is his first, when, coming upon one of the many altercations between Eddie and May, he throws Eddie to the floor. After that, he mostly sits and tries, unsuccessfully, to comprehend what is going on around him, a deer in the headlights.
In the last third of the play, the physical action abates somewhat, as Eddie, May, and The Old Man tell their stories concerning the background of their relationships. None of them knows all the aspects of the story; none of them is a fully reliable narrator. They contradict each other frequently. But Shepard is very good at showing how the stories people tell affect the way they live their lives. When two large, painful parts of their stories have been revealed, the Old Man is in deeper despair than ever. Eddie and May cling together for a time before they part once more. And the ritual likely begins its next round.
Geographically, Sam Shepard country is a physically and spiritually barren American Southwest, on the edge of a desert. Rhett Wolford’s set establishes the feeling of the place from the outset. We see a larger-than-life creased tan motel room, with gaps and holes in the walls and covered by a broken wooden latticework ceiling. A broken-down bed is in the upstage right corner of the room, with an old table and two wooden chairs the finish of which has largely eroded away near center. A metallic grate upright serves as a window. Characters enter through a door near that window, and there is a bathroom with a door downstage right, where May sometimes secludes herself from Eddie.
Matthew Georgeson’s lighting design is subtle and nuanced, often making good use of shadow and backlighting as well as area lighting that does not have distracting sharp edges. Like the set, it provides a sense of place and mood that contribute to the feel of the piece. Darrell Rushton’s direction keeps the pace bracing; it would have been interesting to observe the rehearsal process as he and the actors worked on the characters’ physical relationship.
The sexual politics of Shepard’s 1983 script – produced long before “toxic masculinity” and “#MeToo” were cultural bywords – undoubtedly look different now from what they did then. But the play, especially in a production as excellent as this one, has a broader point, well expressed in a Robert Frost poem:
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.”
In Fool for Love, the desert places are in the souls of the characters.
Running Time: One hour and 13 minutes, with no intermission.
Fool for Love plays through March 11, 2018, at the Cumberland Theatre, 101 Johnson Street (not South Johnson Street), Cumberland MD. For tickets, call the box office at 301-759-4990, or go online.