By Wendy Rosenfield

Despite its backdrop of paved-over western mythology, Sam Shepard's Fool for Love is a rather intimate play for Iron Age Theatre. Though no strangers to Shepard's work -- they've produced The Tooth of Crime, Curse of the Starving Class, and Simpatico -- they're far more likely to take on work about labor issues, racism, or colonialism, and sometimes all at once.

But this, a bitterly comic drama that takes place in a motel room, with a fire-breathing love affair as its engine, is awfully close up for a company that favors the wide angle. With Shepard, the devil's in the details. It's Eddie, lassoing a metal chair and yanking it back with a smirk of juvenile satisfaction, or May, allowing her weary body to yield in Eddie's arms for just one brief, indulgent second before delivering a knee to his tarnished family jewels.

Those moments -- courtesy of Michelle Pauls' scrappy, dishwater-blonde May, and Adam Altman's thick-limbed, luggish Eddie -- work in this production, directed by Randall Wise and John Doyle. There are more, too, offered up by other characters. Sean Close's lanky, shaggy-haired Martin, a decent fellow thrust into the middle of an indecent situation, keeps his head tucked down and tries not to meet anyone's eyes - a hound dog who wandered into a wolf's den. Dave Fiebert's weather-beaten Old Man looks like a wood carving of a western archetype -- the drifter -- threadbare in a rocking chair, speaking on behalf of absent fathers and the self-deluded, and chuckling and chiming in, bemused, like a spectator at a human rodeo. (But please, take him out of his character-defying Birkenstock sandals and put him into a pair of boots, or moccasins, or anything else. )

Moments, however, need to connect and build, especially when you're dealing with family secrets and heartache as raw as May's. "I get sick every time you come around, and I get sick every time you leave," she tells Eddie. "You're like a disease to me. " But neither character seems to have the upper hand here. Worse, Pauls and Altman fight just fine, yet we never see the fire beneath their smoke. And without a bonfire-sized passion fueling it, what's the point of all that yearning?

This more egalitarian take on Shepard cuts some of the mileage out of Eddie and May's relationship, and I miss Eddie's coiled-up menace, the throbbing beneath May's old wounds. Still, the power of the play's language and imagery makes up for a lot of rough road, and Iron Age's team meets it at least halfway.


Presented by Iron Age Theatre at the Centre Theater, 208 DeKalb St., Norristown, through March 25. Tickets: $20. Information: 610-279-1013 or