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As the sun sets: Paying homage to Sam Shepard in SF

SANTA FE, N.M. — The New Mexico Actors Lab is paying homage to one of America’s greatest playwrights and long-time Santa Fe resident by staging Sam Shepard’s “Ages of the Moon” this month at Teatro Paraguas.

Director Robert Benedetti says it’s only fitting that the Actors Lab is staging a Shepard play now.

“Sam lived here (in Santa Fe) for a lot of years and did a lot of writing here,” Benedetti said. “He was generally a very well-known and well-loved character. He was kind of a native son.”

Shepard, who won 10 Obie awards for writing and directing, and whose play “Buried Child” won a Pulitzer Prize (“True West” and “Fool for Love” were nominated), died in Kentucky last July at the age of 73.

The Actors Lab chose to present a lesser known play by Shepard, who was also a renowned author, screenwriter and actor.

Set in a fishing shack in Kentucky on a hot summer night and fueled by bourbon whiskey, “Ages of the Moon” centers on two old friends, Ames and Byron, as they watch the sun set on their lives and wait for the moon to rise.

“It’s a play Sam especially loved because it was based on his longtime friendship with Johnny Dark. It’s a friendship that had a lot of weight in Sam’s life, and that’s one of the reasons that play meant so much to him. We’re very much doing this in that spirit.”

Dark, a comedian who frequently appeared on late night talk shows like “Late Night with David Letterman” in the 1970s and ’80s, was Shepard’s son-in-law, though they were separated by just three years age difference. The book “Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark” released in 2013 documented their friendship in their own words. That same year, the documentary film “Shepard & Dark” was released.

Benedetti says the trailer for that film serves as a good introduction for the play.

“It’s not autobiographical,” he said of the play, “but it is based on the characters’ personalities and the friendship they had.”

In the Santa Fe production, actors Nicholas Ballas plays the gritty Ames, while Paul Blott plays his sympathetic friend Byron.

Benedetti has worked with both actors before. Benedetti and Blott know each other from the Fusion Theater in Albuquerque. Ballas studied at the California Institute of the Arts, while Benedetti was a dean of the theater school and later directed him in four plays.

Interestingly, Ballas knew Shepard. Ballas co-owns Santa Fe’s Cowgirl BBQ. “Sam was a regular there and knew (Ballas) quite well,” the director said.

Benedetti has directed two other Shepard plays, “Fool for Love” and “Lie of the Mind.”

“I love this particular play,” he said of “Ages of the Moon.”

“And it’s a wonderful choice for these two actors.”

Benedetti said that while the subject matter is about two guys facing death, “there’s a lot of humor in it, too, like a lot of Sam’s plays.”

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