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The Outgoing Tide
By Joyce Friedland
As the play begins, two men are greeting one another at a seaside cottage. Gunner, the older of the two, does not realize that it is his son Jack who has come for a visit at his father’s request. Since it is only two months since his last visit, this opening scene quickly establishes how far Gunner’s Alzheimer’s disease has progressed. Vacillating between behaviors that are rational and bizarre, this man, the former owner of a trucking business, remains feisty, controlling and bitingly funny.
Peter Strauss plays the role of Gunner brilliantly. He dominates the stage with his multi-faceted character. He changes his gait, his posture and the tone of his voice to reflect moments of anger, frustration and tenderness. A tragic hero, he cries out in anguish over his wife Peg’s plan to move him into an adult care facility with the looming prospect of a vegetative existence in the “A-Wing.” Strauss portrays Gunner as a man of intense pride and determination as he hatches a plan to override Peg.
Michael Learned's role as Gunner’s wife Peg, is not as well developed. The dialog reveals that as a young girl, educated in Catholic schools, she was shy, bookish and very beautiful in an unsophisticated way. Although we can accept that people change over time, very little of that past seems to survive in the adult Peg. When she appears on stage, it's hard to believe that this sophisticated woman is struggling to survive in a place she hates, coping with a failing spouse. But having said that, the more important observation is that Michael Learned is a wonderful actress who conveys a broad range of emotions. She moves from rage to frustration to solicitude toward her husband as she tries to make decisions about their future.
When Jack (Ian Lithgow), Gunner and Peg’s only child, enters the scene he becomes the sounding board for the conflicts between his parents. Jack has the difficult role of not being a mediator or to taking sides. Yet, he cannot remain untouched by the brewing conflicts between his parents and the imminent divorce that is taking place in his own life. Lithgow's Jack tends to be too noncommittal and thus too bland. In a flashback, when he needs to play Jack as the sensitive young child who cries when his parents fight over him, he is clearly uncomfortable.
The entire play is set at a seaside cottage on Chesapeake Bay. Scenic designer Dirk Durossette has designed a setting that seems authentic as a summer cottage and is sufficiently versatile to allow the plot to develop effortlessly. Flashbacks appear at intervals to provide background information about the characters and their relationships. Lighting designer James Leitner effectively sets off these moments by shining bright light on the principal characters in the flashback and darkening the rest of the stage. This allows for a swift and subtle change in time frame from present to past and back to present once again.
The Outgoing Tide is an extremely well-constructed play. It is held together as a whole by its title, a metaphor for life and death that mirrors the ebb and flow of tides. Divided into two acts, the first is mainly exposition which reveals the background and current lives of each of the three characters. It also introduces the many conflicts. The second act, much shorter than the first, moves the plot along to its climax and the resolution of most of its conflicts. The repeated acts of skimming stones as a competition between father and son, and Gunner’s repeated requests for pancakes as a plea to return to normalcy, anchor the play’s beginning, middle and end.
There were moments when I felt the script needed to be tightened up. There were some problem spots. There were also times when Peter Strauss took his character too far over the top. Too many one-liners verged on hysteria, not humor, and at times the play approached the sentimental. But all in all, The Outgoing Tide is a fine play. I laughed and cried and thought some more about the universal end-of-life issues that were the focus of this play.
It is only a pity that the run of this play is so short. Perhaps it will be extended or reincarnated with an incoming tide.
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