The relationship between Eddie and May is a disaster. Toxicity and tequila oozes through them like a vicious, running stream, and when they kiss, their lips don’t just meet. Their kisses are a series of violent bites and jabs, and when one leaves, the other screams.
It is this compelling dichotomy that exists between those two soul mates in San Jose Stage’s exquisite production of the late Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love,” a 1984 Pulitzer Prize finalist for drama. The play, which focuses on the on-again, off-again relationship of these two lovers, feels dangerous and suffocating, set in the vast wasteland of the Mojave Desert.
Eddie (a visceral turn by Rob August) dominates the landscape, constantly lurking with danger throughout the worn down motel room. He doesn’t really walk around the room as much as pounces on top of it, a fierce presence with crippling cowboy boots and a large tequila bottle never far behind.
With him is the grizzled May (a guttural and gamy performance by Allison F. Rich), a woman who uses every ounce of her being to smash herself onto a dirty beaten mattress when she is triggered, and then gently brushes her hair in vain with absolutely nowhere to go.
Overlooking all the proceedings is The Old Man, played with great hints of curiosity by Randall King. The Old Man doesn’t say much and watches over the landscape with fleeting interest. He seems to be doing more damage to the liquid in the Styrofoam cup than giving a damn about the initial action that starts things off.
The strength of Shepard’s work is how it is handled in director Kenneth Kelleher’s hands, placed nicely on Michael Palumbo’s simple, detailed set. Every action is dangerous yet reeks of boredom. As horrible as this relationship is, there’s not a lot of alternative entertainment in the dullest motel room in an even duller region. Well, unless you have some rope, and can practice lassoing chairs and bedposts with all the precision and elation of a highly skilled cowboy.
These two folks are on a path to nowhere, taking in tequila as often as they take in oxygen. But when May begins introducing her new possibility of a date in the form of the naïve Martin (a dynamically bewildered Joshua Marx), it sends Eddie into a bit of a frenzy.
Eddie doesn’t react as one might, yet neither does Martin. He doesn’t run away at the first sight of a tremor, and stands up firmly to the grilling that Eddie puts on him. And as the somewhat omniscient old man begins to contribute more and more to the story, the tale gets stranger and stranger, ultimately bringing the Old Man into the story in ways that he soon regrets and tries to deny.
The play brings the concept of pathetic fools into heightened, dangerous levels. Both August and Rich are terrific dance partners, constantly trying to top each other, giving as good as they receive. They are loaded with mystery and secret, ephemeral motivations that flit from moment to moment. The scuzzy King, who transforms into his roles as good as anyone, plays the slashing defiance to great effect when he learns a painful piece of truth. And Marx is solid as a listener, having to make heads or tails of the strangest night of his life, when all he was trying to do was take a pretty girl to the movies after watering sports fields at his job.
What the play’s performers get very right is the monologues that are epic and sweeping in Shepard’s voluminous text. These are not speeches that are targeted at any one person, but something much more difficult. They are pieces of reflection, sharing the present collateral damage built by past years of vicious, punishing choices. Each monologue is handled with delectable skill, the naturalistic challenge of Shepard’s words which ultimately find truth and empathy.
“Fool for Love” is a true work of art because Shepard asks a simple question that has no simple answer. If it’s so bad, why stay? If your partner is so horrible, why continue to have that partner? Like Sophocles asked through the tragic hero Oedipus Rex, can you outrun your fate?
As May stares longingly into the dark, desert night watching her past, present and future slip away, she may have found that answer. Reaching the answer was exhausting. But sadly and scarily, reaching that same answer doesn’t seem to be satisfying.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
San Jose Stage Company presents “Fool for Love”
Written by Sam Shepard
Directed by Kenneth Kelleher
Featuring Rob August, Allison F. Rich, Randall King and Joshua Marx
The Word: A strong, visceral production where danger and mystery lurk in every corner of the suffocating motel room.
Stars: 5 out of 5
San Jose Stage Company
Through Dec. 17th
Running time: 70 minutes, no intermission
San Jose Stage Company
490 S. First Street, San Jose, CA
Tickets range from $30 – $65
For tickets, call (408) 283-7142 or visit www.thestage.org