What a difference a decade has made for Sam Shepard, now firmly established as a playwright and movie star in the mainstream culture he once railed against.
But before he and Jessica Lange mutated into the Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello of the cappuccino set, Shepard made his mark as a pioneer in experimental theater. In the 1960s and '70s, his raw, confrontational plays assaulted audiences through stark visual imagery and haunting moods, in flagrant disregard of the conventions of dramatic technique and dialogue.
While the meaning of his plays was often obscure, the impact was always undeniably intense and frequently disturbing. In Shepard's menacing world, society's comfortable insulation is typically exposed as flimsy hypocrisy inadequately reigning in our seething primitive impulses.
Written in 1983, "Fool for Love" reveals Shepard in a more mature and relatively more accessible mode. Here he has softened his resolutely nonverbal stance enough to allow an articulated message to emerge from his primeval swamp of emotional turbulence.
Yet for all its relative clarity, "Fool for Love" is a tale of romance the way only Shepard could tell it, couched in the kind of conflicts that can have no possible resolution but still ring true.
James Donlon and Judi Dickerson play Eddie and Mae, the lovebirds caged in a relationship of tethered, rather than feathered, friends. Bound to each other by obsessive desire, they spend most of their time flailing away at their fetter.
We first meet these fringe characters, appropriately enough, on the edge of the Mojave Desert, where Eddie the cowboy has caught up with the fleeing Mae. Here, amid the prefab anonymity of producer-director Kathy Biesinger's seedy motel room set, they reunite in a relentless 1 1/2-hour confrontation, played without intermission.
From the opening sequence in which they alternately embrace and repel each other with equally violent force, it's clear that Eddie and Mae are very much in love, with all the accompanying tensions and power struggles. Plus a little something extra, as we eventually discover in their tortuous outbursts: They're also half-brother and sister, adolescent lovers who discovered too late that they shared a father who led a double life. This is Shepard territory, all right--the no-man's-land where individual impulses get pitted squarely against collective taboos.
Throughout the play, the gaunt specter of their father (Pope Freeman) remains onstage, conjured up in their fevered visions and interacting with them at key moments--not to pass on the sage advice of a mentor, but to demand continuing allegiance and validation from across the years. Thus do children struggle against the tragedies of their parents throughout their lives.
Donlon's performance as Eddie captures the essence of rootlessness--a cowboy without a cause. Shepard's ongoing fascination with the hollow icons of bankrupt American mythology, cowboys in particular, surface here in a stunning sequence. Donlon shows both Eddie's false bravado and his underlying fear. And he proves unpredictably hilarious and menacing as he baits Mae's "date" for the evening (Jamison Selby), an amiable rube clearly out of his depth in this cesspool.
Dickerson's Mae is a suitably feisty match for Eddie--her passionate kiss ends with a kick in the groin. "I'm smarter than you and I can smell your thoughts before you even think 'em," she snarls, leaving no doubt in our minds. Yet for all her strength, Mae, like Eddie, is adrift--hers is a survival based on instinct rather than goals.
Curiously, this was Shepard's first play to deal directly with a sexual relationship, but it traverses the back alleys of ambiguous morality with assurance. Biesinger's direction shows that she thoroughly understands this work--its twisty currents remain in clear focus at every step, and the staging is engaging throughout.
This production is certainly on the right track. If there's any fault to be found, it's that the play is still a little too polite; rather than banging on the walls of their prison, Eddie and Mae should be slamming against them. An additional week's rehearsal time would probably have gotten them past the reserve. As it is, we see the structure of the building clearly enough but only get a partial glimpse of the cellar. But the cellar, of course, is where Shepard's work lives and breathes.
* WHERE AND WHEN
"Fool for Love" will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Center Stage Theatre at the Paseo Nuevo Mall in Santa Barbara. Tickets are $10.50. Call 963-0408 for reservations or information.