note: entire contents copyright 2015 by Sheila Barth
Playwright Bruce Graham’s slick, sharp dialogue and taut plot earmark his provocative, bittersweet, yet surprisingly funny two-act drama, “The Outgoing Tide,” at Merrimack Repertory Theatre.
The play also marks a significant turn of events- an outgoing tide of its own - with the resignation of Artistic Director Charles Towers, who has helmed the theater to new heights the past 14 years. Towers chose Graham’s moving play as his swan song, and it’s a stirring exit, indeed. Besides being one of the best productions at the theater, it’s among the most superlative I’ve seen anywhere so far this year - and that’s saying a mouthful.
“The Outgoing Tide” explores boundaries we prefer to not cross or face. During last Saturday’s packed matinee performance,composed primarily of senior citizens, the play’s electricity zinged through the theater.
Towers has chosen an exemplary cast, with perfect timing and realism. Ross Bickell is magnificent as macho,aging, Philly Teamster, Gunner Concannon; Felicity LaFortune is terrific as his long-suffering, loving wife, Peg, who sacrificed going to college after getting “knocked up” by Gunner; and David Adkins portrays their placid, about-to-get-divorced, fiftyish only child, Jack, with the patience and long-suffering of a “perfect” son who can never satisfy his dad.
The cast is enhanced by James J. Fenton’s serene, rustic,autumnal lakeside set and Daniel Kotlowitz’s mood-setting lighting, carefully spotlighting and switching back and forth from flashbacks to the present throughout the play. Towers and Fenton took a field trip to Graham’s Chesapeake Bay sanctuary, which Fenton recreated with careful detail.
Benjamin Emerson’s subtle sound effects, with geese flying overhead, Gunner’s boat in the distance, etc. also add realistic touches.
We’re also moved by Graham’s focusing on an unpopular subject that impacts us all, yet we prefer to avoid - what to do with an aging loved one who’s losing it, knows it, agonizes over it, and wants to solve his situation himself, while he still possesses enough mental acuity to do so.
Thing is, this play isn’t what you expect. While the subject is painful, Graham has painted colorful characters who take the tinge off sadness and inevitability of loss, physical, mental and emotional. We don’t laugh at Gunner and his painful memory losses. We laugh with him, at his caustic observations about other people, especially his skewering Catholic priests.
Gunner loves his wife, Peg, of 51 years, saying she’s the prettiest woman he’d ever seen - with Grace Kelly beauty. Gunner may be rough around the edges, but he’s a good man and devoted husband. Yes, he was rough on son Jack, but he loves him. Irrepressible and bullheaded, Gunner refuses to be a burden on his wife and son. He’s keenly aware he has dementia, but wants to maintain his dignity and tie up all loose ends.
Peg wants Gunner to have ideal care, in an assisted living facility, with an A wing available for patients with advanced dementia - vegetables, says Gunner, shuddering.
While Gunner’s solution is horrifying to Peg, Jack and the audience, it’s realistic - his own final act of providing for their future.
I won’t reveal the ending. Just know “The Outgoing Tide” is a marvelously satisfying play that makes us laugh, in spite of ourselves, cry inwardly, in spite of ourselves, and think more lovingly about people we cherish.
BOX INFO: Bruce Graham’s two-act, two-hour family drama, appears through May 15, at the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre, Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 E. Merrimack St., Lowell. Performances:Thursday, 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 4,8 p.m., Sunday, 2,7 p.m., May 17, 2 p.m. only; May 6,13, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets, $20-$60; senior, student, group discounts. Check for related events. Call 978-654-4678 or visit www.mrt.org.