WILLIAMSTOWN — In the 1970s and 1980s, there may have been no more important playwright in America than Sam Shepard, who somehow also found time during those years to cut a pretty fair swath as a movie star.
But in recent years he has seemed to dip below the theatrical horizon. Now comes Williamstown Theatre Festival’s new production of Shepard’s “Fool for Love,’’ directed by Daniel Aukin, and it’s doubly welcome: as a reminder of the playwright’s groundbreaking voice and unsparing vision, and as a showcase for Sam Rockwell and Nina Arianda, who seem utterly at home in Shepard country as they face off in the play’s volatile dance of memory and desire.
About that broken ground, though: In the three decades since “Fool for Love’’ premiered, the culture has made such a reflexive habit of traveling to dark Shepardian places — hello there, HBO — that the revelation at the heart of the play no longer seems as shocking as it once did. Shepard has always been preoccupied with the American West — as a place, an idea, a corroded myth — and this is a case where settlers have muscled in on the pioneer’s territory.
But emulation is not the same as replication. It’s hard to match Shepard’s singular effects of language and tone, his ability to create characters who are specific yet elusive, and his knack for blending gritty realism and the ongoing sense that we’re inside a kind of hallucination.
Absorbing though the Williamstown production consistently is, though, “Fool for Love’’ registers today as a surprisingly fragmentary work; at 75 minutes, it’s over too soon. Strangely, or perhaps not, we want to spend more time in the company of Eddie and May, two ex-lovers who have the stormiest imaginable reunion.
Not that the prefix “ex’’ fits comfortably in the context of a relationship as long-running and mysterious as that between Rockwell’s Eddie, a laconic and enigmatic rodeo stuntman, and Arianda’s May, who’s working as a cook while staying in a dingy motel room on the outskirts of the Mojave Desert. From the opening moments of “Fool for Love,’’ when May wordlessly wraps her arms around Eddie’s legs and won’t let go, it’s clear that theirs is a mutually obsessive, all-devouring passion.
But it’s not long before other kinds of passion — jealousy, recriminations — begin to flare. Much of the heat is generated by May, who is furious at Eddie’s apparent dalliance with a wealthy woman she witheringly refers to as “the Countess.’’ Eddie wants May back. “You know we’re connected, May,’’ he says, adding cryptically: “We’ll always be connected. That was decided a long time ago.’’ May wants to rewrite that script (“You’re like a disease to me,’’ she tells him), and besides, she’s got a date with a nice local fellow named Martin (Christopher Abbott, excellent). To May’s deep annoyance, Eddie draws Martin into their psychodrama.
Yep, it’s clearly time for May to move on. If only she could.
There is one other character: the Old Man, portrayed by Gordon Joseph Weiss, who sits in a corner of the motel room, observing the action and periodically addressing Eddie and May. He lives only in their minds, but he’s a crucial figure when it comes to understanding the exact nature of their relationship.
Director Aukin conjures a bleakly claustrophobic atmosphere and adds small touches that escalate the tension and keep the audience on edge (we know that the potential for violence is always ticking away just below the surface in a Shepard play). Whenever Eddie slams the motel room door shut, it resounds like a nerve-rattling thunderclap.
The performances by Arianda and Rockwell are all the more impressive when you consider they only stepped into the roles a little over a month ago, after Lauren Ambrose (“Six Feet Under’’) and Chris Pine (“Star Trek’’) dropped out, citing scheduling conflicts.
Anyone who saw Arianda’s blazing, Tony Award-winning performance in David Ives’s “Venus in Fur’’ knows that the wilder the material, the more she ups her game. In “Fool for Love,’’ the actress delivers an intensely compelling portrait of a woman tearing at the boundaries of her own life. She offers us piercing glimpses, too, of May’s vulnerability and confusion, defeat and resiliency.
Rockwell’s portrayal of Eddie is so natural and self-assured that at one point the actor effortlessly executes a forward split at center stage, apparently just for the hell of it, then bounds back to his feet. Eddie carries himself like the Marlboro Man, but this cowboy’s West is a shrunken one: When he tosses his lasso, all he’s roping is a bedpost.
When it comes to the tangled intersections of their personal histories, May, Eddie, and the Old Man all get to have their say. Indeed, they all aggressively insist on it. In the fierce contest of wills waged on the blasted landscape of “Fool for Love,’’ control of the story may be the only prize left.