‘Might be one of those once in a lifetime things’ says Ames (Christopher Fairbank) to his friend Byron (Joseph Marcell), in anticipation of the lunar eclipse that is the portentous climax of Ages of the Moon. The wondrous sense of unknowing anticipation expressed here captures much of what playwright Sam Shepard seems to be saying about geriatric reflection and its inability to ever be sure about anything, whether in the past or the future.
Ames has fled to his fishing cabin in the countryside, hounded out by his wife after a passing fling with a young woman. Byron has followed, travelling three days straight on a Greyhound coach to see his friend, drink Woodford Bourbon and reminisce late into the night. As they amuse us with their boyish banter, homespun wisdom and murky recollections of the past, the audience is less and less sure what to believe or disbelieve as conversation descends into a haze of repetition and drunkenness.
There is a tension between perceptions of the profound and the immediate that is constantly being tested; as Ames ponders with respect to the moon, ‘four point six thousand million years old and I can’t even remember yesterday’. Alexander Lass’s production works best during moments of calm – where vacuous chitchat, sexual repartee and attempts to mend the finicky fan that keeps breaking down become the focal point. At these times, the natural chemistry of Fairbank and Marcell comes to the fore. The audience can revel in what is a pretty rare occasion on the stage: a celebration of the banal joys of mellowed-out old age.
But elsewhere the events of the play can seem oddly insincere. In his best work like Buried Child and Curse of the Starving Class, Shepard, the former doyen of hard-hitting modern drama, achieves a visceral pull to human revelation that is rarely matched elsewhere. Here, though, moments of climax often do not seem fully developed, with the audience sometimes left unsure whether to laugh or gasp.
This is partly the result of a script whose relatively short length might not necessarily provide the space for a full immersion into the lives of its protagonists. Another problem is a directorial pull towards dynamism – think melodramatic risings from armchairs, the unnatural moving of characters into levelled positions for dramatic effect – which can jar in something that should perhaps be an unashamedly sedentary piece of drama. We can become distracted by where people are or what they are doing, rather than the significance of what they are saying.
Both Fairbank and Marcell visually embody their late middle-aged parts well, but the absence of supporting cast means there is a lot of action for the two of them to carry over the course of the seventy minutes. In the end, they can both at times seem a little limited in their ability to repeatedly represent moments of high emotion.
Nevertheless, the central conceit of the celestial movement of moon and earth being parallel to their perceptions of life as it draws to a close works well: both are overwhelming, incomprehensible and ultimately meaningless in any definite sense. Ages of the Moon was one of the last things Sam Shepard wrote before his death in 2017, and the script excels in how genuinely personal the reflections upon life seem.
Perhaps with a little more space to develop rather than a strained focus on action or melodrama, this play that intrigues in its exploration of life paralleled with the mysteries of cosmology might have been able to soar.
Ages of the Moon is playing at Waterloo Vaults until 24 November. For more information and tickets, visit the Ages of the Moon website.