While its visitors are mostly city slickers looking for some time away, the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Nikos Stage is offering a slice of the nit and grit of what remains of the American west in its exciting and impeccable production of Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love,” which plays through August 2nd.
Director Daniel Aukin’s production is remarkable in its ability to capture the soul and spirt of Shepard’s work, which depicts a contemporary culture greatly influenced by its past and characters seemingly trapped in a world where people still yearn to be cowboys, women demand independence but don’t mind being rescued, and men hold their emotions so tightly that communication is virtually impossible. It’s in to just such a place that Shepard deposits his audience, a seedy motel somewhere in the vast Mojave desert, where interpersonal relationships and family secrets will boil over for approximately 85 minutes. Aukin certainly knows his way around a Shepard, having not too long ago directed one of the playwright's newest plays, "Heartless" at New York's Signature Theatre Center.
As we learn during the show, there are plenty of fools for love to be had and it’s a treat to report that two of them are played by a pair of our finest young stage and film actors around: Sam Rockwell, who was tremendous in last summer’s indie film hit “The Way Way Back,” and Nina Arianda, who boiled the socks off Broadway with her stunning, brutal Tony-Award winning performance in “Venus in Fur.” They play, respectively, Eddie and May, who share a history deeper than we are initially led to believe and who just can’t seem to get over each other no matter how hard they claim to try. We get to witness their dynamic over the course of the play and realize that their scenario has probably been played out in similar motel rooms or hotel rooms or wherever many times before and ain’t over yet.
Our first glimpse of May and Eddie finds them on the edge of the bed, May desperately clinging to Eddie and him holding her tight as she begs for reassurance that he won’t leave her. But like Mark Twain said about New England weather, just wait a minute, and May will be kicking Eddie in the groin and accusing him of all sorts of betrayals, most of which he’s probably guilty. Their relationship does involve a lot of yelling, shouting and boundary pushing, so much so that it reveals an intimacy so deep, close and painful that continuously piques our curiosity.
Rockwell does a great job as Eddie, providing him with an appropriate western drawl, a typical male impatience, and at times a resolute, cocky attitude. It’s fun to see him jump up on the bed to swing his lariat and, after he’s laid out flat behind the bed by one of May’s suitors, to pursue a conversation with just his boots sticking up over the mattress. The actor employs a strut that covers up some of his current worries, including being followed, in perhaps a Shepard homage to Tennessee Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth,” by a countess in a sleek black limousine with whom he’s apparently been holed up 2,400 miles away for quite some time.
Arianda is equally terrific as May, carefully balancing her character’s desperate fears with an anger so visceral that you imagine that’s what a wounded animal must feel. Arianda does allow her character to come across a bit loud and strident at times that threatens to go over the top, but that’s a legitimate take on May and clearly what Aukin is intending. It would be interesting to see an actor a bit more genteel take on the role at some point in the future, but Arianda offers us a contemporary Belle Starr or Calamity Jane, and since it’s the hot desert, she really can’t be expected to hold in her complex range of feelings, especially since she hasn’t seen Eddie for quite some time. It’s obvious that she’s sent some sort of signal, psychic or otherwise, that has made Eddie drop everything with his countess and rush across the country to “rescue” May.
Then there’s the matter of the mysterious Old Man, wonderfully played as grizzled and lackadaisical by Gordon Joseph Weiss, who sits on a decrepit sofa on one side of the set, observing the action and occasionally commenting to Eddie, who’s the only one who can see or hear or perhaps even remember him. He turns out to be Eddie’s father, with whom Eddie shared a contentious relationship, but this figment still manages to challenge and exasperate Eddie on those few times he deigns to speak.
Into the mix arrives Martin, a hulking young man expecting to take May out on a date, played by the rising young actor Christopher Abbott, perhaps most famous for quitting the television series “Girls” for not liking the direction his character was taking. He makes his entrance in a sudden burst of violence that rattles and shakes the stage, but later evinces a taciturn diffidence as he stands his ground against Eddie’s jealousy. It’s Martin’s arrival that allows the accusations and insults to flow between Eddie and May, as they each try to claim their version of the very unexpected story they will reveal to Martin.
Aukin maintains a sense of suspense and impending danger that is not unusual for a Shepard play. We are unsure just how volatile Eddie is around May and if he is going to blow up at any moment especially when he brings his gun in the motel room for a cleaning. Aukin and lighting designer Justin Townsend manage to make arriving headlights that glare into the motel room seem ominous and terrifying, especially when they are accompanied by an offstage gunshot and a sudden screech of tires. Ryan Rumery’s sound design deliberately amplifies every closing of the door to the motel room with a deep, resonating crash that proves to be jarring each time. The lights in the room are turned off several times as Eddie makes May drop to the floor, as if protecting them both from whatever lies outside their shared space.
Dane Laffery has fashioned an appropriately bland, neglected motel room with a bed, a table with a few chairs, some high small windows that look papered over, and a broad picture window that looks out onto the dark, unhospitable parking lot at the edge of stage left. Anita Yavich has dressed the cast of four in outfits appropriate for each of their characters, with a cowboy flourish for Eddie, a sleek dress for May, worn jeans and a well-used shirt for the Old Man and mountain plaids for Martin.
Aukin keeps the play moving along quickly, with scarcely any moment for the cast or the audience to breathe. The play is also quite funny, with its mix of sarcasm, the occasional malapropism, and the odd beliefs that underlie Eddie and May’s curious relationship. This production of “Fool for Love” is Shepard at his best, funny, dark, ominous, and unforgiving. What can I say? It’s a total delight.