Review: AGE IS A FEELING at Soulpepper

Storytelling production is wise beyond its years

By: Jun. 20, 2024
Review: AGE IS A FEELING at Soulpepper
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Hayley McGee, the creator and performer of the heartrending AGE IS A FEELING at Soulpepper, cuts a string of fate in front of our eyes. The string, attached to one of several vertical flower arrangements surrounding a lifeguard-style high chair, collapses in a heap, cutting off our chance to hear the full story denoted by the word on an envelope buried in the blossoms.

Earlier, an audience member has gotten to decide on which stories we’ll be treated to from the lifespan of McGee’s main character, from her 25th birthday to her death decades later. These three choices of a set of stories dictate our journey; not in that the character’s life changes significantly, but our perception of her story will be permanently altered. Even with our only job being that of silent witness to the character’s life, we will hear some tales in detail, to their final, satisfying conclusions, and others will be truncated with a knowing smile and a waved-off “Anyway…” The show is always different.

There are some stories you get to hear in a life, says McGee, and some you don’t. No matter how close you get to a person, the other human being is complex, multifaceted, and never fully knowable.

McGee’s solo show, which comes to Toronto after winning an Edinburgh Fringe First award and an Olivier nomination from its run at London’s SoHo theatre, is a quiet, intimate, and magical work of personal world-building, which invites the audience in via its second-person storytelling (no mean feat), and doesn’t let go until the final thread hits the floor.

The words McGee presents us with are not especially descriptive, as a menu to a life. There’s “EGG,” “BUS,” “INBOX,” “TEETH,” “HOSPITAL,” and “DOG,” among others. Taken together, they represent a tapestry of life, including chance meetings with people who will become important to her existence, enduring dreams, and questions about whether she’s chosen the right path in career, love, location, and family.

The simple staging by Zoë Hurwitz is quite beautiful, with the vertical vines illuminated by shafts of light emphasized by a heavy haze (which did set off the fire alarm just before the show started on opening night, but there were no further incidents). It’s also relevant to themes of planting, growth, and renewal that crop up throughout the evening.

McGee’s previous solo storytelling show at Soulpepper, The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale, asked some of the same questions, but primarily on the theme of romantic relationships. AGE IS A FEELING broadens the topic to encompass not just the loves that change us as we come of age, but our changing priorities and ambitions as we age further and our bodies gradually betray us. McGee keeps a running tally of her character’s bodily changes, tapping a metal cup as she announces each loss of collagen, sagging body part, or mobility issue. Though she’s not quite able to age 60 years before our eyes, small changes in the gravitas of her speech, a slight slowing of the narrative, and an increasing amused world-weariness in her face are enough of a hint that it’s easy to suspend disbelief.

It’s also easy to suspend belief in the timeline, because there’s no real indication of time period, other than the likelihood that the character’s 25th birthday was sometime within the past 15 years. McGee is so skilled at telling small, detailed stories, that it doesn’t really matter for our enjoyment what the politics or technology or environment is like 50 years later around them—though it’s worth thinking about, since this sort of setting would have a great deal to do with the character’s abilities, desires, and even the aging process.

That’s not the aspect of the storytelling that interests McGee, however. Instead, she snaps spellbinding shots of existence, exquisitely distilling an emotion, moment, or rumination until it’s almost unbearable. As she goes on through the decades, you can hear a pin drop; that is, when audience members aren’t laughing or sobbing with recognition.

AGE IS A FEELING is a show that should be experienced with a multigenerational audience. It’s also a show that, I imagine, will resonate very differently with audience members of varying ages. I’d love to revisit it in a couple of decades and see if its messaging still rings true, but I have a feeling that its appeal is enduring.


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