REVIEW | Something’s Lost in Shephard’s Gentle ‘Ages of the Moon’

Two men nearing the twilight of their lives reunite on a Kentucky cabin porch for one evening of drinking, reminiscing and eclipse-watching in Sam Shepard’s 2009 play “Ages of the Moon,” a dramatic two-hander that probes at the mysteries of aging memory and the fragility of relationships without disturbing too much beneath the surface. 

Directed by Steve Woodring, The Bunbury Theatre’s production of “Ages of the Moon” opened Friday and runs through February 23 at the Henry Clay Theatre (604 S. St.). 

“Ages of the Moon” stars Patrick Tovatt as Ames, a cantankerous alpha male banished to his fishing cabin by his wife after she discovers a phone number given to him by a much younger woman. He calls up his old friend Byron (Matt Orme), whom he hasn’t seen in decades, as a lifeline of sorts, but the prickly Ames never quite seems happy to have the laconic Byron by his side, talking about women and fishing and the moon and all that lives in the spaces between. Maybe Byron reminds him too much of his younger self, now long gone. Maybe he can’t even remember why they were friends in the first place. 

The two actors un-spool Shepard’s meditation on memory and loss with masterful delicacy. Orme carries Byron’s haunted skittishness in his eyes, while Tovatt controls Ames’ anger and bewilderment, which occasionally bubble over with violent results, with precision and ease. 

Some of Shepard’s favorite tricks feel a little shopworn here, like his use of a household object (here, a ceiling fan on the porch) as a totem of sorts for the characters. But his commitment to place never wavers, and Tom Tutino’s beautiful set, lit hauntingly by Jesse AlFord, keep us grounded in the humid outdoor Kentucky evening. 

Despite all the drinking, stewing and trash talking, this play reveals a kinder, gentler side of Shepard to those expecting the ferocity of earlier work like “True West” or “Buried Child,” which Bunbury staged quite beautifully in 2012. Ultimately, the language here is not as interesting, nor are the conflicts as satisfyingly high-stakes, as fans of Shepard’s work have come to expect. 

(Not that Shepard has completely mellowed in his seventies – his newest play “Heartless,” which premiered at New York’s Signature Theatre in 2012, is a return-to-form foray back into the kind of loopy familial lunacy and surreal diction that Shepard wields like a knife.)

In some ways, “Ages of the Moon” functions as a book-end of sorts to “True West,” with both plays focused on two confined characters in conflict who may also be stand-ins for opposing sides of the author’s own nature. But the elderly Ames and Byron, whose friendship goes way back but is never fully explored, are ultimately poor substitutes for the fiercely memorable brothers Austin and Lee – not for their age but for their lack of development by the writer. 

Shepard originally penned the script for two specific actors, Stephen Rea and Sean McGinley, who performed in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre-produced world premiere in 2009. It’s probable that in the role originators’ hands, the subtle differences between Ames and Byron were amplified and refined, but the script as written for production feels bloated even at 90 minutes, circling around itself too often before arriving at its poetic, contemplative ending. It feels like a short story in scope and in voice, and quite possibly could have made a stunning one-act instead of a full-length play.

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