Sam Shepard for the Ages

02/02/2010 4:00 AM |

It seems bizarre, almost perverse, to think that Sam Shepard's latest play, Ages of the Moon, was commissioned by and premiered at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, with a cast of Irish actors and an Irish director. Or perhaps it's symptomatic of the immense generosity and rugged humanity that permeates all of Shepard's work that even a play so typically, deeply invested in American mythology—specifically, the archetypal stoic male descended from John Wayne—could speak to audiences around the world. That production, now at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater through March 7, is something like a short but no less extensive dissertation on the Shepardian hero in his golden years, the late-life counterpart to the pangs of early adulthood in True West or the mid-life regret of Fool for Love. In their front porch ramblings, reminiscences, revelations and rows, Byron (Sean McGinley) and Ames (Stephen Rea) sift through decades of faded memories, triumphs and losses.

Just as important as these occasional narrative nuggets that slowly give shape to a lifelong friendship, though, are the characters' mannerisms, affects and idiosyncrasies. Both Irish actors do American types perfectly. Rea's Ames, a raspy-voiced storyteller with an expressive head of curly brown hair, is more sound of body though less so of mind, and occasionally evokes Tom Waits. Byron, as played by McGinley, is a great deal stiffer and sports tufts of white hair. His dry delivery of lines inflected with a Midwestern accent suggest a man speaking absent-mindedly while he drifts in his own thoughts. Despite these contrasting tics—the excitable wanderer and the hokey homebody—the pair's familiarity with each other's well-worn routines is evident from the get-go.

From the moment they first sit on Ames' front porch (where the entire 75-minute play occurs), they often sip their many glasses of bourbon on ice in perfectly synchronized motions, suggesting that a certain fundamental, telepathic connection between the friends persists, despite what we surmise to be several years of relative estrangement. The movements of the actors' eyes often echo this matching mental choreography, speaking volumes as they evasively observe the details of the porch, stare out at the audience and eventually meet. Indeed, Shepard and director Jimmy Fay's use of silences and pauses in this play is a thing of delight and beauty, often providing revelatory and profound counterpoints to the comic platitudes being spoken. One such passage goes like so:

Ames: Is there anything sexier than women on bikes?
Byron: What?
Ames: Women on bikes.
Byron: Where'd this come from now? Out of the blue.
Ames: I'm just saying…
Byron: What?
Ames: I was just thinking…
Byron: Women on bikes?
Ames: Yeah. What's sexier than that?
Byron: I don't know. (long pause) Horseback, maybe.

Interspersed with stories from their youth and news of recent losses, such exchanges of stock masculine banter provide countless laughs throughout, only occasionally falling into a disingenuous routine.

The third character in the play, as brought to life by set designer Brien Vahey, is the front porch of Ames' country home. Reminiscent of both the Main Street storefronts of cowboy movies and the hunting lodges of male bonding excursions, it's a setting at once rich with details and strangely placeless. Indeed, Shepard's notes indicate: "House should appear to be hovering in space." Near the end of the play, Byron picks up on this sense of being outside space and time: "Where the hell are we supposed to be? The East? The South? East of the Mississippi? Woods. Creeks. Frogs. Where is this?" This is the magical realist America of Sam Shepard, at once contemporary and meta-historical, mythical and modern, sentimental, romantic and pessimistic.

As the play speeds us from noon towards the early morning hours—when the pair plan to watch a lunar eclipse—the subject of the moon and the meaning of Shepard's title are discussed, however furtively. In the play's most moving passages, the two men reveal how both have recently lost their wives in one manner or another, and surmise that one of women's many mysterious properties is their connection to the moon. The "ages of the moon," then, could be the passage of time beyond scope of patriarchal systems and economies. The title also evokes the longevity of Ames and Byron's relationship and their lives. Simultaneously, it suggests some measure of time larger than them, an astronomical (and perhaps even astrological) duration measured in lunar eclipses and cycles. As these deteriorating American alpha males contemplate the twilight of their lives, Shepard seems to ask that we look look on their aging symbolism as generously as he does.

(photo credit: Ari Mintz)