BWW Reviews: A Fractured Family Faces THE OUTGOING TIDE at CoHo Productions
It's an undeniable fact: As we age, those around us age as well. Recently I heard the term "Sandwich Generation" for the first time, a reference to those in their forties and fifties who are taking care of dependent children and aging parents at the same time. Over the years we've had a number of plays on this theme, such as On Golden Pond and Painting Churches, where an adult child confronts his or her parents' struggles and revisits the ups and downs of the parent-child relationship over the years.
It's a familiar premise, but every set of parents and children is different, and the family in Bruce Graham's The Outgoing Tide is a particularly contentious one. Gunner and Peg have been married for fifty years and have retired to their beach house in Maryland. Their only child, Jack, comes to visit, in part to get away from his own problems, but mostly to see how his mother is coping. Gunner has Alzheimer's, and it's getting worse. Peg is at the end of her rope, and wants to move the two of them into a senior care community, but Gunner won't have it. Jack has spent his whole life being pulled between his tough-as-nails father and his staunch Catholic mother, and he resents being dragged back into their battles again.
A playwright choosing Alzheimer's as a topic would seem to have painted himself into a corner, and we expect that we're going to spend the evening watching Gunner get worse. But the action here takes place over just a couple of days, and Gunner has a plan of his own to solve the problems facing the family. Most of the play involves looking at the family dynamic, with quick flashbacks to assorted moments over the parents' relationship and the son's childhood, and Graham is careful not to offer any easy answers or convenient resolutions. A lifetime worth of built-up resentments isn't washed away in a short visit, and a long marriage is filled with more secrets than can be told in the course of a play.
Director Stephanie Mulligan has assembled a wonderful cast and given them room to explore their characters from a variety of angles. Peg seems like a sweet little old lady, but she's tougher than expected. Gunner seems oblivious to the pain he's caused, but he has his reasons. Jack has been buffeted between them for his whole life, which has played a factor in his own marriage and parenthood. The play never takes sides, and Mulligan makes sure that all three characters are given their strengths and weaknesses; we always see all three sides of the situation.
Tobias Andersen as Gunner keeps us guessing. It's not always easy to tell when Gunner's having a good moment and when he's confused. He finds the flinty charm underneath the crusty exterior, and he makes you see why his wife has stayed with him all these years despite his confoundedness. Jane Fellows gives Peg a complexity beyond the "good wife" cliches; she loves her husband and son, and she believes in holding the family together no matter what, but she also lets us see the sacrifices Peg has made to maintain the status quo all these years. Gary Norman has the most complicated role as Jack, who could seem selfish and self-pitying in less skillful hands. Jack is angry for a long list of reasons, but Norman never lets him go too far down that road.
The physical production is simple but elegant. Kristeen Willis Crosser's set and lighting perfectly depict life at the shore, with frequent changes for time and climate, not to mention the numerous flashbacks. And Rodolfo Ortega's sound design is impeccable; the beach sounds are excellent without being obtrusive, and the preshow music is a deftly chosen medley of songs about regret and remembrance from a wide range of eras and vocalists, ending with a post-show song that is improbably perfect.
The Outgoing Tide is about Alzheimer's, but it's not depressing. It's realistic, and moving, and brilliant, and it will make you glad you saw it. It will also make you want to call your parents, or your children, or someone you love dearly.