The late Sam Shepard's "Fool for Love" can appear a deceptively simple play — just four people, a bed, a chair and 70 minutes of dysfunctional family drama. You've seen this one before, right?

The histrionics — the fightin' and fussin' and feudin' in this dingy motel room on the literal and figurative edge of the desert — make "Fool" a savory treat for actors and audience alike.

Yet, as Dark & Stormy Productions' new staging reminds us, the dark heart of this twisted 1983 work is elusive. More than an acting exercise, "Fool" demands a deeper dive into the mystery of human behavior and the vulnerable desperation that results from actions we may never fully understand.

Director Mel Day's production never quite manages this feat. It etches strong performances with good, honest efforts but hasn't an air of the reckless damage that can be caused by love and betrayal.

James Rodríguez portrays Eddie, a cowboy who has driven 2,480 miles from his trailer home to reclaim the heart of May (Sara Marsh). Trying to assemble the broken shards of her life, May wants nothing to do with Eddie, and everything to do with him. When he arrives, she wraps herself around him like a rubber band — one that quickly snaps from the tension.

As they rehash the years of destructive love they have practiced on each other, an Old Man (Patrick Coyle) occasionally injects himself into the fray as a ghostly commentator. The fourth character is Martin (Antonio Duke), a hapless dude who had the bad judgment of thinking he might have a normal friendship with May.

Day finds the broad contours of this claustrophobic love affair, but she and her actors leave moments unobserved. The mood, pitched high, rarely modulates, which in Dark & Stormy's intimate space can flatten out the chemistry.

Rodríguez appeared a bit unsure on opening night Thursday, forcing Shepard's dialogue out of his mouth rather than letting it bubble within him and then flow like a compulsion. Eddie's definitive monologue, where he lacerates his soul and reveals his secret, feels like a speech.

Marsh has more confidence in her performance, as if she's been here before. And that might be part of the issue. That gesture at play's beginning when she engulfs Eddie is the rare modulation. Day hasn't pushed Marsh beyond manner and practice.

The Old Man is the damaged and alcoholic instigator of this bad relationship, the compass that reflects the play's psychology. Coyle has a distinct macho edge — a self-satisfied bully. But he never seems afraid, and that is what should hang in the atmosphere of this small drama — the fear of our own history, the disbelief at what we have wrought. Day's production is earthbound, without that tinge of unmoored insanity Shepard poured into his characters.

This really is quite a difficult play.

Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune critic. He can be reached at