Theatre Review – Soulpepper/Fool for Love by Sam Shepard

Photo by Dahlia Katz

The Soulpepper production of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love (1983) is absolute perfection. This sordid tale of bad love has been given a stage presentation that hits every right note. The tension is relentless.

We learn early on that Eddie (Eion Bailey) has travelled over 2000 miles to find his runaway lover May (Cara Gee) who is about to go out on a date with Martin (Alex McCooeye), an innocent bystander if ever there was. Off to the side in a rocking chair is a mysterious old man (Stuart Hughes) who can communicate to Eddie and May in their imaginations. By the end of the play, we know what his relationship to the two lovers is. There is also an unseen Countess, a lover of Eddie’s, who has followed him with vengeance in mind. What unfolds is a ravaged story of two people trapped in a push me/pull me situation, where they can’t live together and they can’t live apart. The ebb and flow of control between these two damaged souls is the compelling heart of Shepard’s play.

From the moment Bailey opened his mouth, I said to myself, who is this guy? Why haven’t I seen him before? Where has he come from? Bailey is downright terrific in his portrayal of this dangerous, but very sexy, rodeo performer-turned-stunt man. He plays Eddie on the edge and we nervously know he is a volcano about to explode. His Eddie is as riveting as he is scary, and you can’t take your eyes off him.

Photo by Dahlia Katz

According to his program bio, Bailey is California born and raised, and over his career has racked up an impressive list of American film and TV credits. Which brings us to the next question? How did he get to Soulpepper? Some further research leads to the information that he is the husband of Soulpepper’s new artistic director Weyni Mengesha. Who knew? But I say, if this is nepotism, bring it on, and one hopes that Bailey will appear on more Toronto stages in the future. He is one hell of an actor, who even manages to neatly lasso the bedposts as prescribed in Shepard’s script.

I have never seen Gee give a bad performance. She is a stunning talent who goes for the jugular of every character. Her May manages to be as vulnerable as she is combative, and every turn and twist of her personality makes infinite sense in Gee’s careful hands. She has masterly crafted a character who is an equal match for Eddie, but one who is also desperately trying to break free. Gee conveys May’s inner turmoil brilliantly.

McCooeye plays Martin, a groundskeeper by trade, as a deer caught in the headlights. The relationship between Eddie and May has the fascination of a cobra and he can’t look away. It would be easy to make Martin into a cypher, but McCooeye gives him a sense of integrity. We pick up on the idea that he is a good guy trying to do the right thing.. McCooeye is an extraordinarily tall actor, who manages to bend his height to suit the situation. He gives a solid performance of a character who finds himself in the middle of a war zone.

As for Hughes, his Old Man is another brilliant performance to add to his illustrious career. The Old Man is a character who has carved out his own pathway that runs against convention. He has lived his life according to his own rules and he has remained defiant to the end. The Old Man does not have a lot to say, but every word counts. He anchors the battling lovers, and Hughes matches Bailey and Gee in the strength of their full frontal attack.

Photo by Dahlia Katz

To give credit where credit is due, the helmsman of this brilliant production is actor-turned-director Frank Cox-O’Connell. He clearly understands the play down to its nub, and not one of Shepard’s word-spears is allowed to be ignored. The script is filled with language between Eddie and May that keeps escalating the conflict and Cox-O’Connell has ensured that every nuance in the battle is given its proper due.

The setting is a seedy hotel on the edge of the Mohave Desert, and designer Lorenzo Savoini has created a surreal room by cunningly elongating the space. This uber-room, as it were, with its single bed, dwarfed by the stretched walls, is the battlefield between Eddie and May, and its oversized proportions certainly make a statement. Shannon Lea Doyle’s realistic costumes, Simon Rossiter’s dramatic lighting, and Andrew Penner’s explosive sound design all add to the excellence of this production.

This gripping Fool for Love is a jewel in the Soulpepper crown.

Photo by Dahlia Katz

Soulpepper, Fool for Love by Sam Shepard, directed by Frank Cox-O’Connell, Young Centre, July 13 to Aug. 11, 2019.

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