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Multiple playwrights spin generational stories in Seven Ages.

Anne McEvoy (left) and Corene Woodford play a - senior and her reluctant do-gooder.
  • Anne McEvoy (left) and Corene Woodford play a senior and her reluctant do-gooder.
We human beings wrestle with the concept of aging with all the dexterity of a circus clown trying to unfold a recalcitrant deck chair. It's futile, but only natural, because once you realize that the miracle of birth has entitled you to a one-way ride to eventual and permanent oblivion, it sort of kills the buzz. So we spend our days hooked to the inexorably advancing aging process, like dry cleaning hung on a slowly moving chain track. Except you don't clickety-clack around to the front counter again -- you disappear, planted in a box or urn in some field, where your ass is, eventually, grass.

That's why so many writers have attempted to slow down this infuriating process, so that we can understand it a little better before we're punted into eternity. Bill Shakespeare broke it down with deft wit in his "Seven Ages of Man" speech in As You Like It, tracing our existence from mewling infancy to elderly decrepitude. And now, the Great Lakes Theater Festival is offering a free touring production of seven brief one-acts in Seven Ages, written to match Will's outline and as a prologue of sorts to their production of As You Like It next fall.

Seven local playwrights were invited to shape a small dramatic interlude around different age plateaus, and the result, under the spry and sensitive direction of Sonya Robbins, is quite rewarding. Sure, there are a couple clinkers, but several of the pieces are surprisingly affecting, given the brief time -- about 10 minutes each -- they have to create characters and make a point. Aiding the effort is a very capable four-person cast that handles all the roles and set changes with élan.

It starts out, appropriately, in the womb, where breech-baby Rosey (Corene Woodford) is being encouraged to turn by Maude (Reagan Kendrick), a fairy assigned to help rearrange such fetal configurations. Playwright Daniel Hahn has some fun with Rosey's understandable attachment to her umbilical cafeteria and with an Internal Organ Map set up onstage, which helpfully shows "You Are Here." As you might expect, it all turns out fine.

One of the wittier pieces, written by Sarah Morton, pits the muse (Woodford) of a sleepy woman writer against the woman's unseen boyfriend, an apparent slug whom the jealous muse finds particularly offensive and unhelpful artistically. This riff on Shakespeare's third age, the lover, has some surprising lines ("You spend your time getting stoned on ice cream and electric blankets") and a resonant final warning: "Love fades, words survive."

Also good are works penned by Linda Eisenstein and Margaret Lynch. In "Justice of the Peace," Eisenstein places a soon-to-be-middle-aged bride, Ruth, and her supportive niece, Michele (Kendrick), in the hallway of a government building, sweating out the minutes before Ruth's marriage to a guy who's still in the john. As Ruth, Anne McEvoy is every inch an unbelieving participant ("I look like the mother of the bride"), who still sees positive aspects of trying to have a relationship with her visiting sister, whom she regards as a self-righteous little twit. And in "Wise Folly," playwright Lynch presents a Junior Honor Society student (Woodford) who is reluctantly hanging out at a senior day-care center, just to rack up her community-service hours. But Mary (McEvoy), her assigned senior, is a grammar-correcting former English teacher who'd just as soon be left alone. Even with creaky stereotypes and a convenient shared history (one dead brother each), the scene has a few treasures. (As Mary advises her young visitor, "Wrap yourself in words, to see everything that is or could be.")

In Eric Schmiedl's short piece, a gout-stricken and aging Cupid (crisply played by Michael Regnier) tries to give a box -- its contents unrevealed -- to a young woman, but it's a shaggy-dog story with tics. And in Terrence Spivey's minidrama, an excess of clichés ("Stop making excuses," "Be true to yourself") sink the story of a ghost soldier who plays career adviser to a black female grunt.

Arguably the best episode is the final one, written by Eric Coble, in which an old woman in a nursing home is visited by her daughter. Busy with both family and work, young Louise (Kendrick) barely pays attention to her mother, who, tenderly portrayed by Anne McEvoy, moves as slowly as if she were suspended in some invisible viscous liquid. After some microscopic small talk and a passing reference to a family joke ("You look like a million bucks. Green and wrinkled"), Louise prepares to leave, first helping her mother to the bathroom. What happens next not only warms your heart; it may stop that aging machine for just a moment and let you reflect on the little touches in life that can make all the difference.

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