Language is a paltry thing in the mouths of May and Eddie. Since they last separated, words are no longer a match for their shared sense of rage and pent up frustration. Their bodies are longing to be familiar again. Carnal knowledge, that’s the language they share. When Eddie (Andrew Pastides) moves towards May (Jessi Campbell), he leads with his hips. May’s legs pull apart despite her rational mind’s objections. Neither motion is vulgar, though. These are the unconscious movements of intimacy. This is how their bodies recognize each other, how they react when reunited.
Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love was first performed at the Magic Theater in 1983. After a movie adaptation and consistent repertory stagings, the play should suffer from feeling overly familiar to audiences. But it doesn’t. In this legacy revival production, you can still clearly hear Shepard’s mordant wit. He pairs his comic sensibility with something inextricably tragic, though. In his depiction of (wo)man versus fate, he can be as un-ironic as Sophocles was in The Oresteia.
The setting is low Americana, a roadside motel in the middle of nowhere, a desert place where people go to forget themselves. This is where westward expansion ended in dust, and where the American dream comes to die. Vinyl copies of Aaron Copland’s Rodeo are scratched and never reach that moment of uplift. Shepard has written a Western but the territory he’s covering is interior, psychological. In this godforsaken context, he’s examining May and Eddie and the origins of their poisoned love affair.
But their addled reunion is interrupted from time to time by an unruly ghost. The Old Man (an amiable Rod Gnapp) sits in a rocking chair at the front of the stage. He’s an unreliable narrator who both helps and hinders May and Eddie. He speaks directly to them, separately at first, like a voice that haunts their individual consciences. Shepard brings The Old Man into the play as a storyteller. Language is his particular gift. In one breathtaking monologue, he tries to soothe a stricken May by recounting a memory from her childhood. Like the content of the play itself, the lines move in and out of a surreal darkness until they land somewhere risible and inexplicably comforting.
The Old Man also wants to own their stories outright. He insists that his version is the truth. But May and Eddie question and contradict him. When Eddie comes back for May after a prolonged absence, he’s coming back to face the past. He’s a cowboy in an age when cowboys are almost extinct, and he knows he’s running out of options. Pastides is skilled at bringing out the script’s humor. He lets his lanky limbs use him, to show he’s driven by desire. This approach works if you believe Eddie is only a boy in the body of a man. As the play deepens, Eddie has to grow up. That transition from Pastides isn’t entirely believable. There are layers of nuance missing to get the character from beginning to end. The story’s emotional burdens though do belong to May.
Jessi Campbell beautifully communicates her magnetic need for Eddie, and her ongoing revulsion. She mines May’s weaknesses without making her appear only pitiful or shrill. Shepard gives May, who is mostly bewildered by ardor, an opportunity to understand herself and her relationship to The Old Man and Eddie. As an actress, Campbell capitalizes on the opportunity. In character, she transforms the damaged May by providing her with self-knowledge. She regains control of those unpredictable hips by reclaiming her life story from The Old Man and Eddie. Language, which formerly failed and shamed her, becomes a vital and steadying force.
Fool for Love, through March 5, at Magic Theater, Fort Mason Center, 415-441-8822 or magictheater.org.