An Old Man sits downstage left watching the action set in a dreary motel on the edge of the Mojave Desert. A woman sits slumped over on the edge of the motel bed. A slender young man wearing a straw cowboy hat sits slumped over in a chair against a wall. A gnawingly achy electronic drone dominates the theater. We sit watching and experiencing this for a half minute wondering if the play will ever begin. . .and then it does. This is the beginning of Sam Shepard's play "Fool For Love" at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. In spite of wonderful acting from the company of four, in spite of perfect costumes, lighting and set, in spite of all that and in spite of expectations boulstered by the history of awards to the playwright throughout his career, we are left with an ugly, dreary play. And that is a pity!
"Fool For Love" is not a play you want to come back to, ever. Eddie and May, former lovers, meet again for the last time - or the next to last time - or the time before the time before. . .and so on in this room in this play. They love and revolt one another. The old man in the chair - not quite in this room - comments on them and their relationship, chats with each of them as though he was a sort of universal conscience, reveals aspects of their stories that they do not, or may not even know. Sixty-seven minutes later the play is done and you are released out into the real world which may not seem quite so real any longer. This is all you need to know about the plot of "Fool For Love" except that it deals with an atrocious underbelly of humanity.
I have never been a big fan of the plays of Sam Shepard and this one joins the bottom of the list. It is too bad really, for the actors are superb. Sam Rockwell is a hyper Eddie, filled with nearly suppressed violence and always a threat rather than a help to the woman he loves. He has the swagger of the man and he has the strength of the man Shepard created. He is fascinating to watch and to hear in this role. It's just a hateful person Rockwell is playing and he gets every aspect of that guy right.
Nina Arianda plays May whose seductiveness is not readily visible, but once she is on the move, staggering around on her bed, flushing things out of her bathroom hideaway, donning a dress more red then red should be, May is a fascinator like no other. Arianda has a voice that could cut through ice with its odd warmth and she has a body that would stop traffic on a dead-end road, would actually call the traffic onto that road just to stop it. She turns May into a credible creature, especially once she reveals her side of the story. She takes us onto the constant clatter of her high heeled shoes and we can feel the pulse in her feet as she walks. She is so real and so convincing that when she speaks she almost blocks out the story we are trying valiantly to enjoy. She is the play, for me. She is worth seeing at any cost.
The Old Man is nicely played by Gordon Joseph Weiss who has a most arresting voice. Martin, the "gentleman caller" (if you know your Tennessee Williams you'll understand this) of the play, arriving late with a collossal impact on his entrance only to find his influence diminishing quickly, is played here by Christopher Abbott. Abbott does all that he can to stay a point of interest, but the play works against him. These two men have the final scene which seems to be about non-communication.
The real stars of this show are set designer Dane Lafferty and the construction crew of the company. This set is sturdy enough to withstand a lot of door slamming and wall slamming and activity. It looks right, sounds right and reacts properly.
Anita Yavich has designed the perfect costumes. Justin Townsend does wonderfully with the lighting for the play. Ryan Rumery's sound design owes everyone an explanation. Special thanks must go to David Leong for his movement and fight choreography. It's brilliant.
Daniel Aukin, the director, has taken Shepard's play as far as anyone possibly could and he is fortunate to have these players to work with on this project. Any Sam Shepard play has inferred violence and every Sam Shepard play has more than a touch of mid-west insanity. Aukin has fused these and other elements into a well-blended fabric and the only thing to be said about his choices as a director would be "why Sam Shepard?" Aukin is clearly a man with a future; his talent is very visible even in this ugly little play. I hope we'll see him again in the region.
The play opened on July 23 and I saw it on July 30. It has had time to gel and to become what it can be, and what it is turns out to be a fabulous framework for superb talents trapped in a sixty-seven minute chunk of hell. I wish everyone a better next job.
Fool For Love plays through August 2 on the Nikos Stage at the '62 Center for Dance and Theatre at Williams College for the Williamstown Theatre Festival, located at 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-597-3400 or go on line to www.wtfestival.org.