It’s not often that you can compare a play to a kind of painting, but that’s an image that arises after seeing Ages of the Moon by Sam Shepard, now at Ensemble Theatre. In this case, the painting is an impressionistic portrait two old sax players, leaning in towards each other as they explore the various notes of a bluesy tune they’ve played countless times before.
Those sax players could stand for either the characters or the actors in this one-hour one act that touches ever-so-lightly on the quizzical nature of getting older. While it doesn’t delve boldly into its themes, Shepard’s signature language—crackling sharp and often impulsively amusing—still manages to tickle the ear with its unexpected rhythms.
Ames is a snarky old dude who has been exiled to a fishing cabin in the woods, after his wife found evidence of him messing around with a younger woman. To salve his wounded soul, he has called up old friend Byron, who’s travelled a ways to come see his buddy. Even though they haven’t laid eyes on each other in years, Ames often seems upset by Byron’s presence, erupting in anger at perceived slights.
When he’s not flaming Byron, Ames is immersed in a quiet euphoria, describing the phases of the moon as lushly as when he recalls the beauty of a woman. Ames is awaiting a lunar eclipse that night, now that his relationship with his wife has been similarly obstructed. And he wants Byron by his side (except, of course, when Ames is not trying to shoot him).
Under the direction of Stephen Vasse-Hansell, the two actors in Ages turn in solid, resonant performances. As Ames, Allan Byrne is a slight and wiry old coot with a hair-trigger temper. And Allen Branstein gives Byron a low-key charm and authenticity—you can see why Ames would have called on this man for some companionship. These theatrical “sax” players are at their best in the quiet moments, since their more boisterous riffs feel a bit pushed.
Ultimately, Ames and Byron emerge from their jumbled memories, shared loneliness and feisty conflicts into a reflective conclusion that we can all understand. It’s that moment we all experience, when we feel a little closer to a truth that we can’t really explain.
Ages of the Moon
Through December 6 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-2930.