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REVIEW: Age Is a Feeling aches with tenderness and love

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iPhoto caption: Photo by Dahlia Katz.
/By / Jun 13, 2024
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On a breezy night in early June, you’ll show up to review Haley McGee’s newest solo show, Age Is a Feeling, playing at Soulpepper in association with Luminato. 

You’ll gossip with one of your best friends, a fellow twenty-something, over San Pellegrino sodas. You and your friend will leak with excitement for this show — you’re both fans of McGee. You in particular have stoked a tender reverence for the performer-playwright — her candour, her dry sense of humour, her razor-sharp precision as a writer — since interviewing her a long two years ago. You adored The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale, and you’ve been counting down the days until Age Is a Feeling since Soulpepper first announced the show last year.

The show will start. McGee will grab your heart in her fist and squeeze, seeing you in all your twentysomethingness and not minding the mess. Her show isn’t for young people, necessarily, but it’s because of them, the choices they make and the lessons they learn that pave the way to a more solid adulthood. Age Is a Feeling chronicles a life from one’s 25th birthday until death; some of it might be autobiographical. Some of it is sourced from interviews with hospice workers and friends. Some of it pours from McGee’s own heart, rooted less in reality and more in how things feel — how they echo through the pages of a life.

McGee, speaking in second-person prose, divides the show into chapters, some of which this audience will never see. Cards attached to giant flowers suggest a memory; a feeling; a story. McGee picks and chooses which tales to tell, asking audience members in the front row to dictate her fate by randomly choosing cards. It’s highly unlikely two audiences will see the same version of Age Is a Feelingthere are 180 different possible versions of the show.

You leave Soulpepper and immediately draft a text to Intermission editorial advisor Karen Fricker: you want to review this show in a way that honours both its edge and its softness. You feel held by McGee and her writing. 

In the spirit of Age Is a Feeling, Karen drafts you a list of ideas to unspool from the show, an offer of intergenerational discussion for an intergenerational show. 

Chance

McGee has always been a confident performer. She’s not afraid to heckle an audience member for arriving late (as she did when I saw The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale in 2022) or forgetting to silence their phone (as she did four times during Age Is a Feeling — it’s not impossible the unsilenced cell phones were related to the audio-described performance I attended on June 6, but a lot of phones went off). That stage belongs to McGee and McGee alone, and she’ll wait as long as it takes for all eyes to land where they belong — on her.

That confidence ripples through in Age Is a Feeling — McGee has relinquished control of the narrative of her play to the fates, so sure of the play’s power in all its mutations that it barely matters which version happens on a given night. The end result is electric; by having all the possible stories suggested to the audience on cards, McGee gives us the opportunity to become attached to stories we’ll never hear, and leaves space for audience members to playfully boo or sigh when their chosen card doesn’t get picked. I still wonder what went down in “dog” and “airplane.”

A mother’s song

The most emotional vignettes of Age Is a Feeling concern parenthood — how does one decide to become a parent at all? What happens when your parents die? How do you continue to connect with your parents in the aftermath of their departure from the world? Those are big questions; the night I attended Age Is a Feeling, you could hear the sniffles ricocheting off the edges of the theatre.

Throughout Age Is a Feeling, McGee reminds us of a mother’s hum. Maybe it’s her own mother, maybe it’s someone else’s — the autobiography of the show is delicious in its uncertainty. McGee laments not knowing the origins of this simple melody, a lullaby from someone’s youth.

It’s a gorgeous, well-used motif that doesn’t get tired. Sure, she could ask the audience if they recognize the tune — but as unpacked in the show, perhaps it’s better to leave some questions unanswered.

Flowerpots

Lifeguard chair

Breaking news: Mitchell Cushman can direct. (I’m of course being glib — he’s one of the most consistent directors in the city, known for centering delight and ingenuity in his work.) Age Is a Feeling once more shows off one of Cushman’s greatest skills: knowing when to let the text breathe and speak for itself, and when to complement it with aesthetics and movement. 

A lifeguard chair centre stage is the perfect playground for McGee. Sometimes, she circles it like a vulture; others, she climbs it like a child, eventually perching in the seat as she bangs on a metal cup with a pen. 

Scenic designer Zoë Hurwitz has imagined a chair that looks like it has roots in the Michael Young Theatre — it’s as if it’s been there forever, waiting for McGee to find it and use it as her stage. It’s as much a part of the storytelling as she is.

Dirt-stained costume

McGee wears comfortable-looking jeans and a lacy black top that would be at home at a funeral. The jeans are smeared with dirt, perhaps suggesting McGee as the gardener of lives, nourishing her stories with detail and laughter. It aches to wonder how lovingly McGee must have tended to the stories we didn’t hear, the stories lost to the very premise of the show — “you’ll never completely know someone, not even yourself,” she tells us time and again. You’ll never know what dirt you didn’t see.

Dog

McGee likes dogs. A lot. A dog — maybe hers, maybe someone else’s — was hit by a car as a puppy. All her life, McGee’s pined for a dog, despite the people closest to her having allergies to them.

Let me know how this story goes if you hear it; the night I attended, she only hinted at its contents. I’m tempted to go back solely to hear this one.

Aging

Perhaps the most astonishing achievement of Age Is a Feeling is McGee’s ability to recount aging in real time — even the elements of aging she herself hasn’t experienced yet. Somewhere around the halfway mark, it becomes clear the stories being told couldn’t logically be autobiographical. And yet, are they? Stories of menopause and the death of a spouse reverberate with lived experience; she orates as if the owner of a thousand lives and an infinity of stories. When a father dies, she cries. When an estranged friend reaches out to an old woman, McGee holds the lost time in her body, honuoring its heft. When an unheard story plummets to the ground, released from its potted plant by a sharp pair of scissors, McGee holds a moment for the story and its possibilities. 

“Age is a feeling,” says McGee, over and over again — it’s a feeling she understands startlingly well, the curves and the restlessness of it.

You will work hard

“You will work hard,” McGee repeats, as much to herself as to us.

As she tells it, sometimes work will overshadow internal battles of to-have-baby-or-not-to-have-baby. Sometimes working hard won’t pay off immediately — it takes time to build up a body of creation, as well as the reputation for having built it. Working hard isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be.

Addiction

Baby

Soulmate

Regret

You’ll have some if you don’t book tickets to Age Is a Feeling before it closes on June 23.

From my vantage point at age 26, I’m fairly confident this show is for everyone. It’s for zillennials like me, young people with an almost frightening amount of life left to live. It’s for thirtysomethings nursing babies and contemplating the end of mat leave. It’s for audiences comfortably settled into adulthood, grasping at tiny wisps of childhood memories. Age Is a Feeling is a warm hug for whoever might need it; I hope to catch it again this week.


Age Is a Feeling runs at Soulpepper until June 23. Tickets are available here.


Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model here.

Aisling Murphy
WRITTEN BY

Aisling Murphy

Aisling is Intermission's senior editor and an award-winning arts journalist with bylines including the Toronto Star, Globe & Mail, CBC Arts, CTV News Toronto, and Maclean's. She likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cats, Fig and June. She was a 2024 fellow at the National Critics Institute in Waterford, CT.

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Comments

  • Ryan Borochovitz Jun 13, 2024

    Alright, I’ll bite: “Dog” was THE MOST devastating (and, consequently, my absolute favourite!) individual story from the iteration I attended. I’d love to tell you more about it, but I feel as though it would do violence to dramaturgy for me to describe episodes you didn’t get to see in any significant detail — like grave robbing memories out from underneath the gravel.

    McGee has recently said in a promotional video that that she doesn’t read reviews of her work, because “even the positive ones, I feel slightly misunderstood. […] How can you, in a couple of sentences from your own vantage point, ever capture everything that a person was? How can you capture the essence of a person?” Part of me hopes that she might break her rule for this one. This is a stunning marriage of art and its critical reception. I can’t remember the last time I’ve read a review that has so perfectly captured the essence of a piece. Or, that’s at least how I feel about it, in a couple of sentence from my own vantage point.

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