"Ages of the Moon" at Mosaic: Admiring the Subtle Charms of Sam Shepard's Grumpy Old Men
Two old men sit on a back porch. They talk. They drink bourbon. One of them shoots down a ceiling fan. The other one thinks he's having a heart attack. They watch a lunar eclipse. Curtain up. It all takes about 70 minutes.
This is Ages of the Moon, the 38th play by Sam Shepard, the prolific elder statesman of the American stage. There isn't much of a story apart from the minimal actions stated above, and no perfunctory plot description can do justice to the play's multitude of weathered charms. After about ten minutes of it, you may wonder when something is going to happen, but once you become attuned to its unorthodox, beat-heavy rhythms, you'll appreciate its wandering rootlessness as a liberating experience. Shepard has transcended the meager necessity of narrative, creating a minor-key, twilight-era masterpiece.
For its regional premiere of the work, Mosaic Theatre has assembled an impeccable duo, the Tyson and Holyfield of over-50 actors in South Florida. Dennis Creaghan is Ames, an emotional seesaw of stoic, slow-talking calm and then fiery and unpredictable rage. In a suicidal panic after his wife banishes him for sleeping with a 23-year-old, Ames has summoned his estranged friend for the past half-century Byron (Gordon McConnell) to his woodsy cabin retreat for a day of drinking and reminiscing. Byron his has own reasons to feel depressed, as we discover later, but he prefers keeping his misery closer to his vest.
As with most old friends, the time apart has done little to quell Byron and Ames' linguistic connection. Shepard's frequently hilarious dialogue is a strange brew of deadpan observations and abrupt non sequiturs. "Is there anything sexier than women on bikes?" Ames proposes, out of the blue. These men could have exchanged these words yesterday, a year ago, or three decades earlier.
Shepard's love for the English language and its eccentricities cuts through the characters' obscure reflections. Yet the first thing we hear in the show is an impregnable silence, which will reoccur later at sporadic intervals. With these halting moments of inactivity, the men are like haggard jalopies with fickle engines, or the dilapidated ceiling fan above them that only works half the time. You get the impression that it wasn't always this way. McConnell, in particular, is great at conveying a sense of unease in his character. He can never quite get comfortable in his surroundings, sitting with one foot in his Adirondack chair and tapping the other one on the ground nervously.
The nature of a show like this — with its reliance on dialogue and lack of stage action — allows spectators to pay more attention to the design elements than they might in a busier play. K. Blair Brown's costume designs speak to their characters' differences in personality and temperament, putting Creaghan in suspenders and a wife-beater, and McConnell in stained work boots, vest, and well-worn pants. Douglas Grinn has given Mosaic another handsome set, a rustic porch with aged red brick and uneven shingles. John Hall's lighting design evokes the transition from daylight to sunset with barely noticeable deliberation; it's dark before we even realize it. And there's a miniature feat of technical ingenuity from Grinn and sound designer Matt Corey that creates a powerful illusion at the play's comic apex.
Under Richard J. Simon's appropriately understated direction, McConnell and Creaghan appear effortlessly calibrated to Shepard's verbal oddness. So many Shepard characters are formed by the experiences of a lifetime of hard luck; these two tireless workhorses certainly fit into that flock, looking utterly displaced in a physical, emotional, and existential Nowheresville. Ages of the Moon may not be the playwright's ultimate work, but it has the tender wisdom of a swan song.
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