By Selby Frame
Arts Reporter, Kennebec Journal
Any theatergoer who has endured the vicious battles of the sexes in Albee’s classic, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf,” can attest to the difficulty of sitting through two hours of unhappy coupling coupling. But Albee rewards us for our vicarious angst by showing us the frailty at the heart of his monstrous characters.
Not so playwright Sam Shepherd. In “Fool for Love,” currently in production at Portland Stage Company, Shepard’s tortured lovers, Eddie and May, begin with a brittle skeleton of a relationship that actors Greg Stebner and Wendy Barrie-Wilson are never able to flesh out into compelling drama.
It’s not entirely their fault. The script is filled with emotional abstractions that keep the characters at a pale distance. Lines like May’s: “Your’re gonna erase me. You’re either gonna erase me or have me erased.” Characters need to be drawn before they can be erased.
But let me sketch it out anyway.
Eddie and May are two on-again-off-again lovers. We find them in a two-bit desert motel room that hasn’t been redocrated since the 1950s. Edit tries to console May, who sits at the edge of the bed, inexplicably catatonic. He tells her he won’t leave, that he’ll be right back. She counters with hardened defiance, yelling at him to get out of her life. But as he nears the door, she begs him not to go. Eventually they embrace. Then May punches him in the groin.
So it goes. The lovers play out their abandonment ambivalence throughout the play, making quick flip-flps from the deserter to the deserted, but always ending up back together in a stew of half-truths.
Stebner plays Eddie as an emotionally wily, albeit thickheaded, cowboy. He lives in a state of perpetual longing, antsy to return to the open road, but once he gets there, lonely for the domestic life with May he’s left behind. May is just plain angry. Angry, angry, angry. But neither actor is convincing in establishing their underlying needs, which makes their eruptions of eroticism and violence fall flat. By the time their shaking secret is revealed, their struggle no longer compels.
A bright spot on the stage is Larry Golden, who plays an aging drifter at the wheel of a turquoise convertible. He punctuates their love war with dime store philosophy, speaking to the lovers through the windshield of his car and across the invisible wall of the motel. Part confidante, part conscience, his history is mysteriously entwined with both.
When May is visited by Martin (Steve Irish), a naive new beau, Eddie has a field day with him, claiming to be her cousin but acting dangerously like a lover. Martin is at once terrified and enchanted by Eddie’s machismo. The language is alive with Shepard’s favorite themes of male initiation and myth-making, a talent one wishes were extended to the rest of the play.
Russell Parkman’s fantastic set is worth the price of admission. You can almost feel the stale desert heat in the motel room and see the dust dulling the sliding glass window. “Fool For Love,” plays through March 1.