With copious amounts of comedy, Barksdale's "Golf with Alan Shepard" isn't just for duffers. 

The Game of Life

"Golf with Alan Shepard"
Barksdale Theatre
Through Sept. 11

In golf, you are essentially playing against yourself, trying to reconcile your intellectual understanding of what makes a perfect swing with the insistent desire of your body to defy your mind. So in a play about golf, you might expect to hear numerous platitudes equating the contemplative sport with life, which also involves the ongoing battle between a person's conflicting impulses.

Sure enough, there are a few golfing metaphors masquerading as universal truths in the Barksdale Theatre's production of "Golf with Alan Shepard." But they are hidden amid such a multitude of hilarious moments that they don't hurt even a little. In fact, the first act of this rollicking and insightful play is so funny, you might be willing to accept whatever deeper messages playwright Carter W. Lewis chooses to throw at you after intermission. Thankfully, Lewis turns down the comic volume just a single notch in the second act, and delivers a simple and hopeful message in an irresistibly satisfying and surreal final scene.

Lewis' material is served well by David "Pete" Kilgore, the co-founder of Barksdale who came out of retirement to direct the show. As we follow his foursome of old duffers through 18 holes — in which more potshots are taken than golf shots — the veteran director never lets his surprisingly sprightly crew of codgers stray from the center of the fairway.

Each character is suffering from a significant loss. Ned (John Hagadorn) has lost his wife. Milt's (Woody Eney) brother, Kenney, has died, leaving him with the thankless job of humoring the cantankerous Griff (Bill Sullivan), who was Kenney's best friend. Larkin (Kilgore), a former priest defrocked because of a relationship with a 19-year-old waitress, faces the most esoteric loss, a breach with God.

As Griff, the oldest and meanest of the bunch, Sullivan gets to fire off the crudest one-liners and he shows great integrity by never letting Griff become a likable grump. Eney's understated Milt is Sullivan's perfect comic foil: Their dialogue on golf tees that starts the show has echoes of classic bits such as Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First."

The character of Ned travels furthest in the show, from happy complacency to existential dread to new-found resolve. Hagadorn, a skilled actor with 30 years experience in Richmond theater, exceeds even the high expectations one would have of him with his nuanced and penetrating performance. As Larkin, Kilgore gives himself the most thankless role and is forced to be the most nakedly pedagogical in his approach to golf, i.e., life. Even so, he sparkles in his spirited tˆte-…-tˆtes with Sullivan.

Lighting designer Steve Koehler uses appropriately ethereal lighting effects when the dialogue turns to consideration of spiritual matters late in the play. And scenic designer Jason Winebarger employs an abundance of Astroturf to provide a nicely functional set.

Early on, Griff observes, "We're old. Dropping dead is our job." But in its overt consideration of death, "Golf" re-affirms the inherent value of living. This is a show that inspires and amuses, even if you have never held a

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