When fools fall in love

The three-word title tells you most of what you need to know about Sam Shepard’s brief, tightly wound drama, now at Albuquerque’s Adobe Theater. The key to the play is that the emphasis is equally on the title’s two nouns: “Fool for Love.”

Shepard, who died two years ago, was a onetime Santa Fe resident who created 48 plays, directed and acted in several movies, and published a dozen books. His own love life was almost as complex and tumultuous as the fictional characters he imagined. He once said, “Falling in love is such a dumbfounding experience. In one way you wouldn’t trade it for the world. In another way it’s absolute hell.”

In the mere 50 minutes of “Fool for Love,” Shepard manages to capture the inextricably bound disjunctions of passion: love and hate, heaven and hell, hope and despair, affection and violence, need and avoidance, dependence and alienation. This is not a play of pretty poetry or highflown rhetoric. But in its utter simplicity and rawness, the language takes on a depth that defies deft delineation. For example, at one point the erratic, potentially violent cowboy Eddie (Shannon Flynn) tells his off-and-on girlfriend Mary (Heather Yeocero), not to leave him and go off by herself. “I know,” he says, “I’ve wandered around lonely like that myself. Awful. Just eats away at you.”

The play condenses so much action and heartbreak, and so many revelations and changes (including gun shots offstage, a rifle onstage, a real smack in the face and wrestling that is an ineffable combination of assault and lovemaking) into so few minutes that it can leave an audience stunned, which apparently is what happened opening night, when I attended. As the final words of the girlfriend —“He’s gone”— abruptly terminated the play but continued to reverberate in the auditorium, the audience seemed so stupefied that giving the four actors their deserved reward of generous applause seemed out of reach.

Eddie, a role once enacted by Shepard himself, is the lead character, a man snared in a trap not of is own making. As we slowly come to understand the nature of this trap, we get a sense of the complex feelings that roil this initially simple-seeming cowboy with his spurs and boots and stetson and rifle.

Although less profoundly and sympathetically drawn, May is similarly snared in a fate beyond her control. She too has a violent streak. She too is ambivalent in her feelings, alternately ordering Eddie to get out and pleading with him to stay. When Eddie accuses her of “telling lies to get even” with him, she replies, perhaps with more truth than she intended, “I’ll never get even with you.”

At a rear corner of the stage, beneath an unflinching spotlight, sits a character in a cowboy hat described in the program only as the Old Man (John Wylie). On stage during the entire play, he speaks only a few words, but they are all freighted with resonance. Like the chorus in classic Greek plays, he incorporates the fate that the gods, in a moment of playful tragedy, have inflicted upon benighted mankind.

The fourth character Martin (James Schallert) is a kind of foil to Eddie, a potential boyfriend of May’s who is mild mannered to a fault, tentative, confused and totally unaware of the backstory of May and Eddie.

The set is an evocative tumbledown motel room in the southern New Mexico desert. Outside is a red neon sign, “MOTEL.” Inside, the plaster wall has holes, the unmade bed is a single bare frame, and the floor is littered with cast-off clothes. Without a word having been spoken the set tells a story of disorderly and impoverished lives.

Director Jeff Andersen and stage manager Magdalene “Maggz” Gallegos have delivered this oft-produced play (it was staged in Santa Fe not long ago) with skill and professionalism. Managing the timing of the dialogue poses special difficulties as the characters are usually angry and frequently yell at each other simultaneously. Occasionally the actors appeared to ad lib some of their lines on opening night. Asked why some of the dialogue diverged from the published script, the director explained that some moments “got powerful for the characters and their lines ended up not matching 100% with the script.” The almost constant threat of potential and real violence is also a staging challenge.

“Fool for Love” continues until March 31 in Albuquerque at the Adobe Theater, 9813 4th St. NW, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. For reservations and information call 505-898-9222 or go to adobetheater.org. 

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