Sometimes, you are in one of those Peggy Lee “Is That All There Is?” states of mind and then you see a play that reminds you why you still go to the theater.
Sam Shepard’s Ages of the Moon is one of those plays. Honest , funny and filled with that high-lonesome sense of isolation and wanderlust that marks Mr. Shepard’s work, Ages of the Moon affirms that aging ain’t for sissies. Ed Herendeen directs this play with the delicacy it needs to bring out its earthy delights and direct poignancy.
Heartbreak is never easy, but somehow it seems even tougher and stringier when you are older. That’s the predicament Ames (a ferocious and hurting Anderson Matthews) finds himself in after he does a stupid thing with a young gal and his wife gives him the boot. Ames holes himself up in a cabin in the middle of nowhere to lick his wounds and spends lord knows how many days and nights drinking bourbon and staring at the sky. This prompts a dead-of-night phone call to a friend from his youth, Byron (the superbly laconic John Ottavino), to beg to keep him company.
Byron complies and the two geezers sit on the porch of a ramshackle cabin, sipping drinks, talking about the past and trying not to kill each other. Ames and Byron could be older versions of the room-busting brothers from True West, the combative lovers from Fool for Love or the brawling rock stars from Tooth of Crime. Like these other characters, the ties that bind Ames and Byron run deep and tight, but that doesn’t keep them from wanting to rip each other’s throats out and destroy some property in the process. In Mr. Shepard’s universe, intimacy and violence intertwine.
The difference between them and their predecessors, however, is the passage of time. Ames and Byron may sniff and circle each other like two junkyard pups, but the body – like the heart – does not bounce back the way it used to. When Ames and Byron scuffle, real damage can be done. In their minds, they may still be gladiators tearing their way through life, but the reality is, their armor is rusted and clanky.
Still, that does not keep the two friends from trying to behave like the young bucks of their glory days, whether trading punches, versions of what they firmly believe occurred in the past, or praises of women. The women in their lives were magnificent creatures, peerless and golden objects to be worshipped and mourned.
Age cannot help but seep into even these conversations, as Byron wants to talk about elder sexual dysfunction while Ames prefers to steer the topic to hilariously boyish musings on what is sexier — a woman on a bike or on a horse. Of course, this leads to more fighting and a riotous moment involving an unreliable ceiling fan.
On the surface, nothing much happens in Ages of the Moon other than the two old friends fussing and drinking while waiting for a total eclipse of the moon to occur. Byron’s penchant for literalism really gets under Ames’ skin, as does Ames’ use of high-falutin’ language and metaphors set Byron off. The back and forth between the two is classic Sam Shepard—a mixture of humor, hostility and something that is at once folksy and dark.
The language is pure poetry that seems to wrap up the characters in a strange, solitary song that is all their own. The tension between the desolation of the present and their dueling reminiscences of a rich past seems to cast Ames and Bryon into a universe that is limitless and lonely—their voices their only refuge against the encroaching, infinite darkness.
Playing in repertory at the Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepardstown, WVA through July 31.
Ages of the Moon
by Sam Shepard
Directed by Ed Herendeen
Produced by the Contemporary American Theater Festival
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Running time: approximately 90 minutes with no intermission