Running through Aug. 3, the Santa Paula Theater Center will present a new production of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, directed by Taylor Kasch, produced by Leslie Nichols, with sets by Mike Carnahan, lighting by Gary Richardson, costumes by Barbara Pedziwiatr, and starring Ron Feltner, Jessi May Stevenson, Peter Krause and W. David Wright.

Fool for Love, written in 1983, is sometimes grouped with four other Sam Shepard plays — Curse of the Starving Class (1976), Buried Child (1979), True West (1980) and A Lie of the Mind (1985) — to form a “quintet.” An interrelatedness is thereby implied — some sort of thematic unity — which might be fruitfully discussed in a seminar or dissertation, but is, for the theater-goer, more or less irrelevant.

There may be Sam Shepard festivals some day (they may already be under way), and major research universities may offer courses on his “oeuvre,” but I think Shepard would be content if people simply continued to go to his plays — one at a time, in no particular order, and at decent intervals — and react to them on their own terms.

One of the greatest things about this great American playwright is that Shepard’s plays require absolutely no background. All we need to know is right there. It’s sometimes said that his plays deal with “dysfunctional families,” but there would have to be some such animal as a “functional” family to compare them to, and that is the myth that his plays explode.

A synopsis of Fool for Love would make it sound fairly Gothic, and the situation at the heart of it has been touched upon by the likes of Tennessee Williams and Lillian Hellman. But Shepard is not interested in forming a cult of the fragile and sensitive, still less in denouncing his characters as heartless predators.

Nor is he especially concerned with regional stereotypes. The motel, where the action of the play takes place, is in the Mojave Desert, but it could for all intents and purposes be on the outskirts of Cleveland or Miami. The desert is a useful setting, however, in that whatever happens in the desert is likely to be the only thing happening for many square miles. The actions of May and Eddie and the Old Man stand out as starkly there as they would on a Greek vase.

All the important events have already taken place, and we in the audience are witnesses to the aftermath. The lives we see have already been destroyed, and there is ultimately something heroic about their furious and futile punching of the bag they are in. Or, as Eliot says:

… And right action is freedom
From past and future also.
For most of us, this is the aim
Never here to be realised;
Who are only undefeated
Because we have gone on trying …

Because of the drabness of their settings, and the undistinguished social status of their characters, Shepard’s plays are taken as “realistic,” but there again, all categories are obstacles to the understanding. There are some very funny passages in Fool for Love, but that doesn’t make it a comedy. What the characters mainly evoke is pity, and pity, as Dostoyevsky tells us, is the one thing we can’t live without and still be human.

Fool for Love shows at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with a 4 p.m. matinee on Sundays. Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for students and seniors, and they are available at the door, by phone at 805.525.4645, or click here to purchase tickets online.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at The opinions expressed are his own.