If you’ve never seen or read Fool for Love (as I had not prior to Friday night), the play—which opens the 24th season at Fells Point Corner Theatre—features a wonderfully shocking twist. Until that point, however, it seems little more than another tale of drifters trapped in Sam Shepard country (in this case, ex-lovers in a “seedy motel room at the edge of the Mojave Desert”), condemned to scream at each other and pound the walls of Darla Luke’s admirably sturdy set until … well, in truth, I’m not quite sure—by the time Eddie threatens to leave for the fourth or fifth time, and May tells him to go to hell, only to beg him to come back, I was starting to drift myself.
This isn’t entirely the fault of director Barry Feinstein or his actors. As Eddie and May, Bobby DeAngelo and Kate Volpe gamely obey Shepard’s note at the beginning of the script: This play is to be performed relentlessly without a break. In addition to the screaming and wall-pounding, there are quite a few tears and even some genuine laughs as these two hard-boiled souls torment each other. Still, I couldn’t help wishing that DeAngelo and Volpe had found more levels to explore, as I wished Shepard had shaped their interaction into something more varied or dropped a few more concrete details about their history prior to the twist, which jolts the play back to life like desert lightning.
What we do know is that May suspects Eddie of having slept with a wealthy woman identified only as “the Countess,” and Eddie can barely control his own jealousy upon learning that May has scheduled a date with a local man named Martin. The Countess makes a brief, offstage appearance (fine work here by lighting designer Charles Danforth III and sound designer Terry Kenney), but Martin is a flesh-and-blood character who—as memorably played by Michael Zemarel—is the first, welcome sign that Shepard has more up his sleeve than meets the eye.
From the moment Zemarel barrels through the motel door, dressed to impress and speaking with an endearing, nasally twang, the mood onstage lightens considerably. The chief beneficiary of Martin’s entrance is Eddie, who has a lot of fun tweaking his guileless competitor—DeAngelo and Zemarel make an inspired odd couple—but Volpe’s May also reveals new layers, at once softer and shabbier. Then comes the twist, and from that moment through the final blackout I was riveted.
There is one more character, known only as the Old Man. Clad in a Stetson hat and clutching a bottle of whiskey wrapped in a paper bag, he wanders onstage while the house lights are still lit, explores the empty room (at one point ducking meaningfully into the bathroom), and finally lowers himself into a corner chair, where he remains for the rest of the play, officially invisible but periodically intruding on the action as though connected to Eddie and May by invisible bonds.
(If you’ll permit me a brief grumble, I wish theaters would recognize that their now ubiquitous “welcome” speeches, in which the director, artistic director, or some other higher-up requests that we turn off our cell phones and informs us where to exit in the event of an emergency, inevitably undermine such pre-show choreography—there’s little point in so carefully establishing the world of the play if you’re then going to cut to a sharply dressed individual with a list of formalities to cover. The production would have been better served had the Old Man’s journey around the stage simply opened the play.)
But I digress. In my defense, the Old Man is himself a master of digression, and it goes without saying that his mysterious presence is the key to Eddie and May’s past. As played by Jeff Murray, he projects a grinning, “good ole boy” façade that gradually crumbles as he eavesdrops on the action, finally overhearing more than he’d wanted to know. Then, with enviable ease, he seems to forget (or dismiss) everything he has heard, losing himself in rose-colored reveries as Eddie, May, and even poor Martin drift back to their broken lives, clearly lacking the Old Man’s talent for selective amnesia. The memories of their night together shall haunt them—and us—and the whole, sad scene seems doomed to repeat itself in another seedy motel in another desert town. That Sam Shepard knows what he’s doing after all.