‘Outgoing Tide’: The play of laughter and forgetting

Bruce Graham's play about how a family contends with Alzheimer's leads to further consideration

Tobias Andersen and Gary Norman in CoHo's "The Outgoing Tide"/Brud Giles

Tobias Andersen and Gary Norman in CoHo’s “The Outgoing Tide”/Brud Giles

By RICHARD WATTENBERG

A play about Alzheimer’s disease and end-of-life decisions hardly sounds like an evening chock full of laughs. And yet Bruce Graham’s “The Outgoing Tide” addresses these topics in a taut family drama that skillfully balances pathos with humor that is sometimes dark and sometimes tender. Graham’s play and the current CoHo production of it successfully eschew sentimentality. Instead we are offered a thoughtful glimpse into the particular dynamics driving one family as its dementia-stricken patriarch tries to tie up loose ends and guarantee the future security of his loved ones.

“The Outgoing Tide” is a loosely structured play. While for the most part Graham’s family drama is set in and around the Chesapeake Bay cottage where the hard-nosed Gunner and Peg, his wife of more than fifty years, currently live, the action frequently detours into the past to represent, by way of showing and not just telling, significant moments in Gunner and Peg’s family history.

The focus, however, is on Gunner and Peg’s current dilemma: Gunner, portrayed with light-hearted irascibility by Tobias Andersen, is gradually losing his battle with Alzheimer’s. The loyal Peg, played with a high-strung intensity by Jane Fellows, believes that moving from their home into a care facility, where she can continue to attend to her husband’s needs but with ever-present professional assistance, has become necessary.

To help her convince the stubborn Gunner to take this step, she enlists their fifty-year-old son, Jack. Gary Norman’s sullen, depressed Jack has his own problems. He is in the process of working out a divorce with his wife, and he is disappointed by his own son’s inability to find a path for himself. Even more troubling for Jack is a lingering fear that Gunner might not ever have really loved him.

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As these three characters work through multiple tensions—the little hurts and the little regrets that bind them—we can’t help but note echoes of past American family dramas. The aging parents and the cottage by a scenic body of water recall Ernest Thompson’s “On Golden Pond” (1979); Peg’s plea for Jack’s assistance in helping her protect her mentally ailing husband from himself suggests Linda’s plea to her sons in Arthur Miller’s classic, “Death of a Salesman.”

Perhaps the most obvious parallel with an earlier American family drama becomes apparent at the close of Act I when Gunner announces his decision to arrange a lethal accident for himself. Gunner’s resolution initiates a conflict between Peg, who does not want to let him go, and Gunner, who wants to avoid the degradation and loss of dignity that his disease will inevitably bring him. This is a struggle very much like that driving Marsha Norman’s 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning “’night, Mother”—a play which revolves around Mama’s frantic efforts to stop her daughter from committing suicide. Given the nature of Alzheimer’s debilitation this struggle takes on a new significance here, but choosing between life and death or between dependence and dignity and distinguishing between loving people for themselves or loving them for ourselves are never as easy as it might first seem. Although the play certainly moves in one direction, Graham’s conclusion is less a final answer than an impetus for our further thought.

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Tobias Andersen and Gary Norman in "The Outgoing Tide"/Brud Giles

Tobias Andersen and Gary Norman in “The Outgoing Tide”/Brud Giles

Even as the play poses difficult questions—the kind most of us desperately seek to avoid for as long as we can—Graham keeps the tone surprisingly buoyant. The familiarity of some of the not-so strange family foibles can’t help but provoke frequent smiles of recognition. The amusing repetitions of “now, don’t tell your mother” and “now, don’t tell your father” will ring hysterically true with most of us, and Peg’s bizarrely dramatic warnings aimed at her son surely have their counterparts in most of our experiences.

Still, playfully cantankerous Gunner has most of the play’s droll moments. Sure, Alzheimer’s occasions sudden bursts of frustration and anger in Gunner, and Andersen handles these moments truthfully and with impressive power. But when lucid, Gunner has a wonderfully dry sense of humor that extends to mocking his own mental lapses, and Andersen skillfully masters this aspect of the character as well. As mulish as Andersen’s Gunner can be, we can’t help but be taken in by the sparkle in his eyes that accompanies his quick, sharp wit.

During these lighter moments as well as during more poignant scenes (the last ones Gunner and Peg share), the actors have a fine rapport with each other. Director Stephanie Milligan has drawn solid performances from all three. Andersen’s presentation of Gunner’s obstinacy is nicely complemented by the urgency of Fellows’ Peg, and Norman’s pensive Jack provides a good ground against which the best and worst of Andersen’s Gunner and Fellows’ Peg can be seen. If there is an occasional let down, however, it occurs during some of the many flashbacks—when Gunner and Peg were teens or when they were young parents with the child Jack. Some of these scenes add texture to the action, but others feel forced. In the latter instances, the actors don’t seem to fully enter the earlier incarnations of their characters.

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Working within the tight quarters of CoHo Theater, the production’s design team adeptly provide the play with a gentle autumnal patina. Kristen Will Crosser’s set supports the play’s fluid structure by strategically placing off-white and pale blue-colored summer cottage and porch furnishings around a stage, which is backed by a large pastel colored rustic bayside scene painted on the stage wall. The predominant blues, tans, and greys of the scenery convey a sense of late fall.

Similarly the costumes pick up the muted palette but add some brighter autumnal coloring. Crosser’s lighting design skillfully reinforces the plays movement back and forth between past and present even as it conveys a clear sense of time of day in the present scenes. In short, the visual elements of this production skillfully complement the restrained, if mildly wistful though certainly not bleak, tone of the play.

In the end, we are left with the sense that we have been introduced to three characters who comprise a family that is unique but very familiar—a family that faces issues that will confront us all, but deals with them in ways we might or might not want to emulate. Again, this is a play that provokes thought but does not offer pat answers. And isn’t that the function of good theater?

One Response.

  1. Dave says:

    Impressive script and rendition. The small space of Coho really brings home the intimacy of 3 souls doing the best they can.
    Got a deserved standing ovations on the night I saw it. Tobias, in particular, is noteworthy for his performance in a role that could easily be played as a one note crank.

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