Magic starts golden season with searing Shepard

“I don’t love you. I don’t need you. I don’t want you,” May tells Eddie, about two-thirds of the way through Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love.”

The mysteries of passion have never felt more intense, more deeply human than in this short play, which premiered here at the Magic Theatre in 1983, directed by the playwright, with Kathy Baker and Ed Harris as May and Eddie.

Now it’s back, at the end of a several-seasons-long tribute to the Magic’s one-time resident playwright, and in celebration of the theater’s 50th anniversary. It’s a fitting finale indeed.

Directed by Magic artistic director Loretta Greco with careful attention to the script’s detailed stage directions (right down to the color of May’s dress) and with respect and empathy for his complex characters, it’s quintessential, and riveting, Shepard.

Set in a low-rent motel on the edge of the Mojave Desert (spare, evocative design, by Andrew Boyce, complete with rumpled bed and naked, hanging light bulb), the play focuses on a couple locked in a love-hate battle that’s been raging for 15 years, since high school.

Eddie (rangy, sexy and dangerous as played by Andrew Pastides in cowboy boots and jeans) brandishes a gun and a steer rope, with which he drunkenly (and, by Pastides, expertly) lassoes the bedposts; he has just returned, unexpectedly, after being away for a while, clearly with another woman.

May (Jessi Campbell, heartbreaking and steely as a troubled, conflicted woman) wants him to leave — she can’t stand his constant disappearances and his infidelities — but also wants him to stay. “You’re like a disease to me,” she tells him, and we eventually learn just how true that is.

Yet every time he slams out of the room she howls, bereft.

As May’s hapless nice-guy date who turns up to take her to a movie at the worst possible time, Patrick Russell finds the humor in the character without ever sacrificing his dignity.

Observing the action from a rocking chair set below the stage platform is Shepard’s mythical, forever unfathomable father-figure, whose unsettling but essential presence at audience level deepens Shepard’s patented dysfunctional-family dynamics.

Played by invaluable Magic Theatre regular Rod Gnapp with a sly and seductive grin, the character adds a comic element to the play, an effective counterpoint to the atmosphere of violence and cruelty; Shepard, like Beckett and Pinter, is a master at juxtaposing the light and the dark, so beautifully captured by this Magic team.

Fool for Love
Presented by Magic Theatre
Where: Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 26
Tickets: $90
Contact: (415) 441-8822,