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Theatre & Performance Soulpepper’s Fool for Love exposes the heart of Sam Shepard’s callous play

Cara Gee and Stuart Hughes in Soulpepper's production of Sam Shepard's Fool for Love.

Dahlia Katz/Handout

  • Fool for Love
  • Presented by Soulpepper Theatre
  • Written by Sam Shepard
  • Directed by Frank Cox-O’Connell
  • Starring Eion Bailey, Cara Gee, Stuart Hughes and Alex McCooeye

rating

Sam Shepard’s bruising Fool for Love can wear itself thin quickly when a director understands the play as a love story, or an anti-love story, or a hyperreal examination of dysfunctional attachment. The power of Shepard’s 1983 drama about two lovers screaming blue murder at each other in a motel room is the way their conflict can reverberate on an allegorical scale. There are hints of both William Faulkner and Sophocles in this bracing snapshot of a man and a woman stuck in a purgatorial cycle, unable to escape the destructive passion for which they seem destined, while teeming with both loathing and love. It isn’t until the play’s final moments that we begin to see that Eddie and May are, perhaps, as much incarnations of their histories as they are free-willed human beings.

Soulpepper’s production, which opened in Toronto on Thursday night, gives us these layers and then some. It’s rare that a director adds a twist to an eminent work of art that, rather than feel like a liberty, gets us closer to the play’s heart. But this is just what Frank Cox-O’Connell has done by casting Cara Gee, an Indigenous actress, in the role of May, and making her character’s heritage lightly felt and deeply relevant. (Make sure you read Gee’s personal and searing program notes on the subject, which merit being published on their own.) The implications that resound from this subtle addition feel like a revelation. Through Cox-O’Connell’s lens, we see that themes of land, colonization and inherited trauma were always in the text.

Shepard sets his drama in a cheap motel in the Mojave Desert, once heavily contested territory between Mexico and the United States, and formerly belonging to the Indigenous Mojave people. Eddie (Eion Bailey) has driven thousands of miles across the country to win back his ex-girlfriend and take her with him to Wyoming. But May is hearing none of it because she’s heard it all before. She’s finally gotten her life together after being repeatedly dumped and abandoned by Eddie. She can’t forgive him for the fling he’s had with a rich woman she calls “the countess.” Moreover, she has zero interest in Wyoming: “I hate chickens! I hate horses! I hate all that shit!” she screams.

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Even before we learn the harrowing way that May and Eddie’s histories are intertwined, we get a sense that their love can’t be measured in human time or metrics. It has a whiff of the eternal, the elemental. When May tells Eddie, “I can smell your thoughts before you think them,” we might be tempted to take her literally. The two seem connected by animal instincts and unconscious forces, as though they’re organic features in the harsh and arid landscape that surrounds them.

The Soulpepper design team brings the allegory to vivid life, creating an eerie overlap between cultivated and natural worlds. Lorenzo Savoini gives us a cheap-looking motel room that initially holds the desert at a remove; dunes appear in the distance through an upstage window. But as the story unfolds and traumas are revealed, the room’s sprawling red carpet suggests a ground bathed in blood. When the earth starts to burn, tongues of orange flame are right at the motel door.

Bailey makes a captivating and playful Eddie, finding depth and variety in the character and rising to its intense physicality (he’s a natural with a lasso and throws in a few handstand push-ups for good measure). Gee has a scorching presence and a powerful voice; she slays in her final monologue.

Alex McCooeye, left, offers a nuanced and hilarious performance as the out-of-his-depth Martin.

Dahlia Katz/Handout

If I’m allowed to have a favourite rising star in the Soulpepper ensemble, it’s Alex McCooeye, who is tender, nuanced and hilarious as the hapless Martin, stumbling upon a domestic situation way out of his depth. And Stuart Hughes is both funny and haunting as The Old Man, a godlike patriarch who watches over the intrigue and just might be responsible for the whole tragic mess.

Confession: I’ve never liked Fool for Love in the past. I’ve always found it shrieky and relentless, belaboured in its callousness and grit. Soulpepper has done more than change my mind; I feel like I’ve finally seen the play’s potential.

Fool for Love continues at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts until Aug. 11.

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