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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
This Fern Hill's owners are Sunny and Jer (Jill Elkenberry, Tucker's real life spouse but here married to Marc Blum). And, as has been the case for years, Sunny and Jer's friends— Billy and Michiko (Mark Linn-Baker and Jodi Long) and Vincent and Darla (John Glover and Ellen Parker) — have driven up to relax, enjoy each other's company and to celebrate special occasions, which in this case is a triple birthday: Billy's 60th, Jer's 70th and Vincent's 80th.
Several members of the cast have changed since the New Jersey premiere ( review) but it's still a top drawer assemblage of stage veterans. As indicated by the notes I spotted while browsing through the script , the playwright has made quite a few nips and tucks (no pun intended, despite Tucker's own obviously intentional nudge to link his Sunny and Jer with Sonny and Cher). Yet the production now at 59e59's Theater A, still runs two hours and its two acts still play out in the kitchen/living room designed by Jessica Parks. And none of these changes have made Mr. Tucker's ambitious plan to create a play that runs on two thematic tracks problem free.
Thematic plot track number one explores the practicality of having friends anticipating the need for assisted living arrangements by forming their own group home. Certainly worthy and important given our ever growing older population.
But using the planned commuune as a means for also digging into the emotional, sexual and psychological history of of these characters, unfortunately doesn't make for an organically fused, satisfying whole. Good as the cast is, Tucker hasn't developed his characters fully enough to give us a really clear sense of what makes the friendship bond strong enough for this experiment to work. Sunny and Jer might trigger memories of Martha and George in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf . But neither they or their possibly permanent housemates are all that memorable or compelling .
The dramatic setup works pretty well to introduce each character and bring the dual issues on stage. The group's compatibility is clearly based on their fitting a similar sociological demographic. All are financially comfortable and successful in their professional pursuits — Jer as a professor and author of philosophical books. . .Sunny also an academic but also creating rather collecting paintings like the ones hanging on the walls of the Fern Hill kitchen. . .Vincent actually is an established painter (those pictures on the wall are probably all his) and his wife Darla is also an artist with a major show on her immediate horizon . . . Billy is a still touring rock musician and his much younger wife Michiko works in some sort of arts management job.
By the time we join the birthday party, the idea of turning these weekends into something less transient has already been proposed and is probably going to happen. But the focus is now on celebrating the men's each entering a pivotal new decade.
However, a plan involving such major life style changes is not easily put on the back burner, no matter what the purpose of a get-together. Consquently, for all the drinking and bantering, the anticipated communal experiment is bound to be part of the conversation—especially since Mr. Tucker isn't exactly subtle about telegraphing that that this brave journey into the last few chapters of life isn't going to be smooth . Or even possible! And so, to borrow a quote that's survived its golden oldie movie source, "fasten your seat belts" and prepare for some dramatized bumps in this plot.
The first dramatized bump in the road: Though Sunny's proposal to turn Fern Hill into a mini commune doesn't come as a surprise what's surprising is Jer's voicing his rejection of her suggestion.. He's come to the conclusion that it won't work and will go counter to his need for privacy. The second and more surprising really big bump comes from Sunny's announcement that her marriage to Jer has run into stormy weather.
It seems Jer is having an affair with a younger woman and she's not inclined to forgive and forget but ready to make him leave. Naturally, without him the whole Noah's Arc pairing is thrown off kilter, and the plot shifts to having everyone air their own less then perfect lives in hopes of keeping Fern Hill's owners together.
And there are indeed clouds overhanging all these lives. Billy's star as a rocker has dimmed; Jer is not happy with his latest book; Vincent is anxious about his upcoming hip surgery and increasingly aware that the decade he's entering may be his last; Darla obligation to take care of Vincent is keeping her from enjoying her suddenly blooming art career. Most of this comes to light during a scene during which the men are out in the barn getting drunk and smoking some of Billy's weed and the women are in the set's living area (I couldn't help wondering why the set couldn't have included at least a small couch) . This scene does evoke the women's genuine warmth and caring for each other.
Sunny's disenchantment with Jer proves more than justified, by the time we get to the second act which moves the action two weeks forward and after Vincent's operation. Yet Jer is still at Fern Hill and actually taking care of Vincent. Many audience members at the matinee I attended were well into and past middle age and no doubt admired John Glover's authentic depiction of how someone who's just had a hip replaced walks.
It's in this post-party act that Mr. Tucker uses an impromptu group therapy session to tackle details of all his characters' sex lives. Alas, it brings Fern Hill to a too facile and vague conclusion.
Still, the excellent actors and helpful staging by director Nadia Tass, make Fern Hill a pleasantly entertaining two hours. And in case you didn't pay close attention when Billy was preparing his clam sauce and spaghetti dinner, the recipe is included in the program, so be sure to save it.
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Fern Hill by Michael Tucker
Directed by Nadia Tass
Cast: Jill Eikenberry (Sunny), John Glover (Vincent), Ellen Parker (Darla), Jodi Long (Michiko), Mark Linn-Baker (Billy), Marc Blum (Jer)
Scenic Design: Jessica Parks
Costume Design: Patricia E. Doherty
Lighting Design: Kate McGee
Sound Design: Kenneth Goodwin
Stage Manager: Stephanie Clark
Running Time: 2 hours and 5 minutes including intermission
From 9/10/19; closing 10/20/19
Tuesday – Friday at 7 PM; Saturday at 2 PM & 7 PM; and Sunday at 2 PM
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 9/15 press preview
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