Stage Door Review

Fool for Love

Friday, July 19, 2019

✭✭

by Sam Shepard, directed by Frank Cox-O’Connell

Soulpepper Theatre Company, Young Centre, Toronto

July 18-August 11, 2019

Eddie: “I’m not goin’ anywhere. See? I’m right here. I’m not gone”

In 2005 Soulpepper presented its first production of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love. It starred Megan Follows and Stuart Hughes as the sparring lovers May and Eddie and Frank Moore as the mysterious Old Man who watches this conflict and comments on it. Now Soulpepper is presenting a new production of the play with Stuart Hughes playing the Old Man. Director Frank Cox-O’Connell has a general view of what the play is about but he is able to draw complex performances from only one of the four cast members.

The play is plotless and its action is composed primarily of the increasingly intense alternations of attraction and repulsion in the relationship of Eddie (Eion Bailey) and May (Cara Gee). Set in a room of a seedy motel in the Mojave Desert, May implores Eddie to stay, yet when he stays she becomes enraged and asks him to go. Eddie continually threatens to leave but never, until the end, follows through on his threat. 

Each is jealous that the other has another person in their life. May despises Eddie for his liaison with someone known only as the Countess, whom we never see. Offstage the Countess takes her revenge on Eddie for having another woman by shooting out the windshield of his truck with a shotgun. Meanwhile, May tries to make Eddie jealous that she is going on a date that night with Martin (Alex McCooeye), a nice, decent, ordinary man quite unlike the volatile Eddie.

Eddie and May remain as if trapped on Lorenzo Savoini’s cutaway set of a shabby motel room surrounded by sand and furnished only with a bed, a chair and a radio. Following Shepard’s explicit stage directions, sound designer Andrew Penner has placed microphones in the walls and floor of the set so that every door slam or pounding on the walls or floor sounds like an explosion in the war between Eddie and May.

This heightening of the play’s realism is what led early critics of Shepard to label him as a hyperrealist, the dramatic equivalent of painters like Richard Estes or Chuck Close. Yet, Shepard’s play is more complex than that. Off to the side not on the motel room set Shepard has placed the Old Man who regards the action, comments on it and attempts unsuccessfully to interact with Eddie and May, who ignore him. 

An insoluble paradox the play presents is whether the conflict of Eddie and May is a figment of the Old Man’s imagination or whether he is a figment of theirs. The one fact all three agree on in their various tales is that the Old Man is the father of Eddie and May by different women. The Old Man kept his two families strictly separate, neither knowing about the the other. The fear arose in him that his two children might meet, but by then it was already too late. The two met in high school and fell in love, a love that simultaneously draws them together and pushes them apart.

Fool for Love, in fact, is one of Shepard’s most clearly allegorical plays. May longs for stability and safety. Eddie, a stunt cowboy at rodeos, longs for new frontiers and freedom from any ties. Given its reference to the Mayflower, Shepard suggests that from the very beginning the American Dream has been composed of the two incompatible desires embodied by Eddie and May. The Old Man speaks of his love for their mothers as one love divided in two. But the product of that division is eternal conflict.

To depict that conflict accurately the actors playing Eddie and may must be equally strong. Sadly, in this production that is not the case. American actor Eion Bailey as Eddie gives a far more detailed and effective performance than does Canadian actor Cara Gee as May. Bailey, like the other two male actors, speaks with a mild American Southwestern accent and makes the rhythms of Shepard’s dialogue sound absolutely natural. Especially wonderful is Bailey’s delivery of Shepard’s monologues where Bailey is able to find the poetry in Shepard’s prose. Bailey has a charismatic physical presence and seems animated by forces of rage and love that he can barely control.

Gee’s performance fatally pales before Bailey’s. She does not attempt an accent and is never able to make Shepard’s dialogue sound natural much less find the poetry in it. She delivers the text either in an uninflected tone or by shouting with no gradations in between. May is prone to telling Eddie to stay one moment and to go the next. This is meant to depict the anguish of May’s inner conflict, but with Gee this comes off as almost comic indecision.

Stuart Hughes is excellent as the decrepit, delusional Old Man. The character’s constant drinking can be viewed as his attempt to dull the pain of the conflict his actions have visited upon his children. While Hughes plays the Old Man as superficially charming though seriously addled, he does not make the character as fully despicable as he could. 

In most productions Martin is a breath of fresh air, someone completely outside the literally incestuous atmosphere of the play who is taken aback by what he encounters. The character can serve as much-needed comic relief from the highly charged atmosphere that has developed. In an odd move Cox-O’Connell has Alex McCooeye downplay the comedic nature of Martin to make him simply the ordinary man that May describes. Comedy, however, can heighten tragedy and by not making Martin as comically naive as he could be, Cox-O’Connell robs the play both of contrast and of a clearer view of the extraordinary world the other characters live in.

Sam Shepard died only in 2017 and many may wish to see Fool for Love as a way of remembering his work. That would be a noble effort. Bailey’s performance as Eddie is so far the best I have seen. More’s the pity that the other three actors have not found as much much in their roles as he has. Yet, Fool for Love will still intrigue those new to the play. Shepard’s critique of the contradictions at the heart of the American Dream and of America’s infinite capacity for self-deception have only become more relevant. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Cara Gee as May and Stuart Hughes as the Old Man; Cara Gee as May and Eion Bailey as Eddie; Cara Gee as May and Eion Bailey as Eddie. © 2019 Dahlia Katz.

For tickets, visit soulpepper.ca.