BWW Reviews: Swept Away by THE OUTGOING TIDE
The Outgoing Tide
Written by Bruce Graham, Directed by Charles Towers; Scenic Designer, James J. Fenton; Costume Designer, Deborah Newhall; Lighting Designer, Daniel Kotlowitz; Sound Designer, Benjamin Emerson; Production Stage Manager, Casey Leigh Hagwood; Stage Manager, Peter Crewe
Performances through May 17 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 E. Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA; Box Office 978-654-4678 or www.mrt.org
Merrimack Repertory Theatre Artistic Director Charles Towers is stepping down after fourteen seasons at the helm, leaving the company with a shipshape production of Bruce Graham's The Outgoing Tide. Following the success of last season's staging of Stella and Lou, also by Graham, Towers is bringing his audience one final moving drama with the playwright's hallmark "blend of humor and heartbreak," written with impeccable honesty and directed with the finest attention to every emotional detail.
A trio of IRNE Award-nominated actors and MRT veterans seamlessly portrays the Concannons as they come to terms with daunting life and end-of-life issues at their rustic home on the Chesapeake Bay. Patriarch Gunner (IRNE winner Ross Bickell), struggling with advancing age-related memory loss (although not labeled, it appears to be some form of dementia), devises a scheme to take care of his family as he proactively takes charge of his own fate. His sparring partner and wife of fifty years, Peg (Felicity LaFortune) thinks that it's up to her to care for him "til death do you part," even if it means moving them both into a facility. When their middle-aged son Jack (David Adkins) heeds his father's call to come home, he finds himself familiarly in the middle of their battleground and pressured to choose sides, while he has his own family battles to sort out.
In order to appreciate the full impact of this push/pull on Jack, Graham slips in flashbacks to his childhood when both parents were in the habit of telling fibs, exaggerations, or outright lies to the impressionable boy. For the most part, they were harmless (as in "you'll shoot your eye out") and meant to either protect him (when told by Peg) or toughen him up (when told by Gunner), but the reverberations continue to affect his relationships with them and, arguably, with his ex-wife and teenage son. As Jack hovers around the mid-century milestone, he sees that the difficulty he has in connecting with his son is a by-product of his father's distance from him, and doesn't want to have the same regrets as Gunner. Observing his parents' marriage and Peg's life of sacrifice, it's hard to know if Jack wishes that his wife had been cut from the same cloth, but he certainly gains an understanding of their bond by the end of the play.
Towers and scenic designer James J. Fenton visited Graham at his Chesapeake Bay home to get a sense of the world of the play and have recreated a special environment on the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre stage. You can feel the peaceful, rustic quality of the wood-hewn waterfront cottage, augmented by designer Benjamin Emerson's ambient sounds of loons calling and waves lapping the dock, and warm lighting shades provided by designer Daniel Kotlowitz. Deborah Newhall costumes Gunner in comfortable old khakis and flannel shirts, in contrast to Jack's city clothes, completing the picture of how life is different in this tranquil setting.
Ultimately, The Outgoing Tide is a love story that requires each of the characters, as well as the audience, to analyze and decide just exactly what love means to them. Graham takes a serious situation and infuses it with natural humor, born of the human experience. He doesn't take the edge off as much as he blunts it, or rounds it, allowing the plot to roll along and gain momentum. The denouement is not unexpected, but its emotional impact is surprising. If you feel swept away, consider it a parting gift from Charles Towers.