WELLFLEET — There is a moment near the end of the Harbor Stage Company’s production of Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love” when two broken lovers stand at opposite ends of the stage, re-creating the moment they first met. She is wearing a red dress, and he sports Wranglers so stained you can almost smell them. The desperate hunger in their eyes captures the tortured love that pulses through Shepard’s 1983 play and animates this mostly satisfying production.
Set in a tumbledown motel room on the edge of the Mojave Desert, this is the tale of Eddie and May, two lovers who have been trapped in a cycle of despair since they met in high school 15 years earlier. He is a wandering cowboy who drives 2,480 miles and shows up in her room with a rifle and a riata. She exists on the verge of a meltdown. These two can’t live with or without each other. She orders him to leave then begs him to stay.
They are haunted by the presence of a character simply called The Old Man, who sits in a rocking chair downstage and calmly observes this familiar dance of self-destruction. The three characters are tied together by a dark family secret, and they can’t escape a tortured past.
This is quintessential Shepard — the lost cowboy, the lyrical language, the mordant humor, the dysfunctional family — and director Jeff Zinn’s production invests the play with a renewed sense of urgency. As May, Stacy Fischer has a haunted beauty and a country twang. She may be broken, but she’s also fierce. One minute she’s prostrate in agony. The next minute she wields a hairbrush like a weapon. Jonathan Fielding is perfectly vacant as Martin, an unfortunate gentleman caller who wanders into a tempest he doesn’t have the capacity to understand. Tom Brogan is matter-of-fact as the bearded Old Man only Eddie and May can see, and his seemingly warm smile is intentionally creepy.
But Robert Kropf, Harbor Stage’s artistic director, is miscast as Eddie, the menacing rodeo rider who was played by the gangly Shepard in the 1985 film version of the play. While he captures the character’s tortured pain in his monologues, Kropf simply lacks the aura of a one-time Marlboro Man. This is a man who is obsessed with May’s neck, but when he swings a lasso to rope in a bedpost, there’s no danger in the air, except perhaps the fear that he might miss. The script reverberates with sexual tension, but there’s no electricity, no burning desire in the performance.
Nevertheless, the production still has its crackling moments, like when Eddie and May stand face to face, lips not quite touching as they tear each other apart with words. When The Old Man tells a tale about a crying child who is only quieted when confronted by a herd of cattle, May crawls across the stage, as if wounded by memory.
At 70 minutes, this one-act play is not Shepard’s most substantial work, but it has all the trademarks of his greater plays, and despite a few wrong notes, it seems so right that it is being revived in this small and weathered waterfront theater. You can almost feel the boards shake every time someone slams a door — and the doors slam all the time in this play, which is as funny as it is grim. Jenna Carino’s seedy motel room set is a wasteland on the edge of nowhere, a visual reminder of lives spent in honky-tonk towns and tin trailers. John R. Malinowski’s lighting is full of shadows and sparks that more than hint at inevitable disaster.
“You’re like a disease to me,” May tells Eddie. She keeps tequila glasses in the medicine cabinet of her rundown motel room because, she says, “there’s no germs” in there. But this pair will never be able to cleanse this disease called love because it runs through their veins and inhabits their DNA. These characters are inexorably linked, and even though they all tell a different version of their shared history, they can’t rewrite it and are doomed to repeat it.Patti Hartigan can be reached at email@example.com.