A charged current runs through Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, one that keeps pulling the doomed central couple together even as it guarantees their mutual destruction. Yet sparks barely fly in EgoPo Classic Theater’s flat production of the 1983 play, the latest entry in the company’s season-long exploration of Shepard’s canon.
No animal instincts
Take, for example, the first feral embrace between Eddie (Jered McLenigan) and May (Julianna Zinkel), the pair of lovers reunited in a dingy roadside motel in the Mojave Desert. (Chris Bratek’s set for this production, awash in Tim Martin’s warm lighting, looks more stylish than run down.)
It comes just moments after the two find themselves locked in a physical and verbal haranguing that seems destined to end violently. In the script, Shepard describes May’s lunge for Eddie as such: “She suddenly grabs his closest leg with both arms and holds tight. She squeezes tighter to his leg, buries her head in his knee, he just stands there, strokes her head softly.”
This moment captures the play’s essence—attraction and annihilation, inextricably linked. Yet under Brenna Geffers’s direction, Zinkel’s May doesn’t seem to be holding on for dear life. And McLenigan’s Eddie doesn’t come across as the kind of mercurial, magnetic figure that a woman like her just can’t quit. The animal instincts just aren’t there.
A popular Shepard
In the four decades since it first premiered, Fool for Love has arguably become Shepard’s most viable commercial play. It appears with regularity in regional and community theater—I saw a fine production from the semi-professional Princeton Summer Theater in 2016—and received a top-notch Broadway revival starring Sam Rockwell and Nina Arianda. Robert Altman filmed the play with Shepard (who died in 2017) as Eddie and Kim Basinger as May.
I expect the work’s lean, 60-minute running time, single set, and four-character cast have something to do with its popularity. But to my mind, the elliptical, menacing tone Shepard sets immediately with that opening clutch and maintains throughout the subsequent hour makes it among the hardest he ever wrote to get just right. Although EgoPo is one of the city’s most intriguing theater companies, and Geffers is usually an impressive director, the balance is just not there.
Eddie and May’s encounter—which comes to include Martin (Steven Wright), May’s milquetoast suitor—is weighed down by an air of secrecy over the exact nature of their relationship. At least it should be. Together and separately, Zinkel and McLenigan convey little palpable danger as their dance builds to a fever pitch. Poor Martin, who usually feels like a pawn in a game he’s not qualified to play, here seems like an equal in terms of slyness and subterfuge—all three of them operate on the surface level, few confidences buried underneath.
An uncomfortable humor often takes the place of rising tension. This is most evident in McLenigan’s unsatisfying performance. More of a Roy Rogers dime-store cowboy than a hostile drifter, he lacks the edge that draws May (and even Martin) into his ruinous orbit. When Eddie brandishes a shotgun or a lasso in that tiny motel room, it should be shocking; watching McLenigan rope a bedpost feels like a rodeo trick. The inanimate object also seems like all he’s fit to snare.
Zinkel fares better in isolated moments, though she sometimes defaults to blankness as a way to communicate the profound misery of May’s haunted past. I’ve seen other actors pull off this kind of performance—vacancy as a way to suggest depth—but it needs to be buoyed by something evident in the character’s inner life. That doesn’t happen here, and at other points, Zinkel’s wounded May seems surprisingly hale.
The performances are of a piece with the production, which remains mostly on one level. This includes Joe Canuso, grandfatherly rather than threatening as the Old Man who may hold the key to understanding Eddie and May’s perilous chemistry. Perhaps due to the spatial limitations of EgoPo’s performance space at the Latvian Society Theater, Canuso is stationed inside the hotel room, rather than as a spectral figure on the production’s periphery. This adds to confusion.
Just like the relationship at its center, Fool for Love contains more layers than meets the eye. I wish I could say the same for EgoPo’s production. Their Shepard season will conclude next month with his ultimate family tragicomedy, Curse of the Starving Class, and I hope that assumption will reflect what I know this company is capable of offering. Until then, audiences will be left searching for water in the desert.
What, When, Where
Fool For Love. By Sam Shepard. Directed by Brenna Geffers. EgoPo Classic Theater. Through February 23, 2020, at the Latvian Society Theater, 531 N. 7th St., Philadelphia. (267) 273-1414 or egopo.org.
The Latvian Society Theater’s performance space is located on the second floor of its building and is accessible via a chair lift. Patrons with specific questions about accessibility should contact EgoPo Classic Theater before purchasing tickets.