Romance at the Edge of the Mojave Desert

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Fool for Love

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at


There is something wrong with the relationship between Eddie and his girl, May, in the run down, seedy motel that May resides in at the edge of the overheated Mojave Desert in the 1980s. Eddie has been living with her, and leaving her, often, for fifteen years. He cannot let go of her, though, and always comes back. This time he drove 2,400 miles to see her. She yells and screams at him, her blonde hair whipping about her head, but is crushed every time he leaves.

Who stays in love with a guy who won’t marry you and keeps walking out for fifteen long years? Why doesn’t May dump him and find a husband and family somewhere else? There are a lot of men in the west.

Fool for Love, the absorbing and riveting revival of a play by Sam Shepard that opened last week at the Samuel Freedman Theater, 261 W. 47th Strreet, in New York, is another look at small towns on the edge of the western universe, little postage stamp communities with a decaying drive in movie theater, coffee shop, gas station, intersection, street light and not much else. Here, in a dumpy motel, Eddie and May come to grips with their troubles and their past…ever so slowly. The play crawls along, interrupted by furious arguments and tirades of hot emotions, but you cannot figure out what their deep, dark secret is. They have one, though, and it simmers in the desert heat.

Then, in the middle of the play, Eddie drops the bombshell that while they are longtime lovers, they are also brother and sister in a madcap, two wife, two family existence carved out long ago by their irresponsible and callous father. He sits on the side of the stage most of the time, urging his children to both tell the truth and get along better. Get along better? In bed with your half-sister?

Then there is big, old Martin, a dumb as a rock boyfriend of May’s who wanders into the motel to take her to a movie right after the couple engages in yet another venomous fight. The story of their long and unhappy life spins around Martin when he slams Eddie against a wall.

Fool for Love, one of Shephard’s several  western plays, explores the sordid side of life between Eddie and May, but you like them at the same time you are pitying them. Somehow you hope they sort things out and step back and way from each other and find other lovers and start new lives.

The play suggests that in 1980 in small desert towns  there were not many choices for men and women and that people tumbled into affairs with family members (the tired old marry your cousin southern story). It is 1980, though, modern times, and the story of the father’s illicit lives with two women, and two kids, needs to end, and end right away.

Fool for Love rolls towards an explosion at the end, and it grips the audience. The long burning fuse on the powder keg finally triggers the eruption and everything in their lives tumbles out.

Director Daniel Aukin does a fine job of letting the plot slowly sizzle and keeping the romantic, and apparently doomed, duo battling over just about everything.  He gets superb performances from Sam Rockwell as Eddie, Nina Arianda as May, Tom Pelphrey Martin and Gordon Joseph Weiss as the useless, bearded, lazy father who continually tries to retell the story to make himself appear as a victim, too. They all engage in a play within a play, all trying to get out of the vortex of melancholy and confusion into which they have fallen at the edge of the torrid desert.

Family dramas are hard to stage and it is always a bit unbelievable. They do happen, though. Men do marry, or live with, two women and have children with both. It has been going on, sporadically, for centuries. The end is always sad, too. Aukin does a fine job of telling the story and both Rockwell and Arianda are believable as the siblings on fire and a pair of people who do not know how to understand their relationship or how to succeed in it – or just walk away from it..

The play needs more historical depth, though. Even thirty year ago in the western desert areas of America, this was a wild story, so Shepard should have presented some anecdotes of similar family stories of ‘kissn’ cousins.” The play needed more of a western backdrop, too. Other than the Mojave and a long description of the plains, this story could have taken place in Portland, Maine.

Even with the sketchy history on stage, Fool for Love, back after thirty years, is solid theater and stirring emotion.


PRODUCTION: The show is produced by the Manhattan Theater Club and the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Scenic Design: Dane Laffrey, Costumes: Anta Yavich, Lighting: Justin Townsend, Sound: Ryan Rumery, Fight Director: David Leong. The play is directed by Daniel Aukin. It has an open ended run.

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