Sam Shepard has long been praised as a quintessential American playwright. His plays often deal with volatile male characters struggling to find their identity through violence in a world where family life for them equals inevitable ruin. These familiar themes are reexamined in Shepard's latest play, Ages of the Moon. In its season-opening production, Undermain Theatre stages a stellar production in its southwest regional premiere of this fine play.
The story follows two aging friends who spend an evening reminiscing about old times, arguing over women, and drinking bourbon—lots of bourbon. Byron (Mark Fickert) has travelled across country to come to help out his friend, Ames (Bruce DuBose), who has cheated on his wife with a young 20-something year-old and has subsequently been kicked out of his home. The two sit outside on the front porch of an old shack out in the country. Where exactly they are, we never really know. As Byron says, "Where is this supposed to be?… I never thought I'd be in a place like this."
And that seems to be the point of the play. The two are in isolation from the world. They are embodiments of aggressive, male characters from Shepard's previous plays but who are older and frailer now. They are in a kind of limbo in which they have time now to think about their lives and the very nature of existence. As Ames puts it in the opening moments, "I'm used to things being what they are. A tree is a tree." Don't be mistaken, though, in thinking this is all heavy and serious. There is plenty of comedy here, too.
Taking full advantage of the humor, Katherine Owens directs this production, making sure that the comedy often strikes the right tone. A few times, it comes across a bit forced, though.
The show moves like a Beckett play with its mechanical, almost ritualized, repetition of movements and words that serve to ground the production. There are long, drawn-out pauses between beats in the action in which both men simultaneously take sips from their drinks. There is a ceiling fan that is "finicky" as Ames says; it seems to randomly stop and start on its own. And both Byron and Ames repeatedly ask why and how they got there. Yet, the play is not so much about why they are there as it is about how they deal with being there.
The ramshackle set (by John Arnone) is a dilapidated setting where an eclectic collection of random broken objects have come to rest. Old license plates are hung on the chicken wire that creates much of the front wall and allows the audience to view inside when Ames repeatedly goes in to refill their drinks.
Putting on a two-person show may not be easy, but DuBose and Fickert make it seem effortless. They have an endearing chemistry on stage. As the volatile Ames, DuBose is pitch-perfect. Like the old ceiling fan, he is finicky and unpredictable and manages to milk the lines for comic effect. And he makes the transition to the more poignant scenes with subtlety and ease. Fickert's Byron comes across as a big idiot with his semi-handlebar mustache and low Southern drawl. Yet, there is something innocent about him that makes his emotional moments that much more effective. There is real tension between the two men, and Fickert proves capable of matching DuBose's violent outbursts.
We are left in the end with the same feeling that Byron has towards this strange isolation: "This is good. This is perfect." This show gives a worthy staging of what may be considered another classic Shepard play and proves yet again that Undermain can be trusted to bring new and innovative theater to North Texas.