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Theatre in Review: The Outgoing Tide (Primary Stages/59E59)

Peter Strauss and Michael Learned. Photo: Matt Urban

Bruce Graham pulls off a neat trick at the very top of The Outgoing Tide, showing us what seems like a perfectly straightforward scene, and thoroughly overturning our expectations. We are introduced to Gunner, a talkative old duffer who has a house on Chesapeake Bay. He is shooting the breeze with Jack, a younger man -- although, in truth, Gunner is doing all the talking, unleashing a nonstop stream of observations about summer houses, marriage, his career in trucking, you name it. From Jack's brief answers one assumes he is a neighbor, or possibly a buyer for the house. (Gunner keeps pointing that his wife hates living there.) But Gunner is baffled to learn that Jack is staying with him. A second later, a woman enters. "Who's the dame?" he asks.

In fact, Jack is Gunner's son, and the woman, Peg, is his wife. Gunner suffers from Alzheimer's disease and the symptoms are worsening daily, to the point where for periods of time he cannot even identify his loved ones. Peg, alarmed, has summoned Jack, enlisting his aid in persuading Gunner to move with her to an assisted living facility. Gunner, having taken one look at the care center for those in the later stages of the illness, wants nothing to do with the place. Jack, whose problems include an impending divorce and a troubled son, demurs. Then Gunner stuns them both with a plan that involves a faked suicide and an invocation of his insurance policy's double indemnity clause. It is, he thinks, a perfect solution: He will be out of the way, Peg will be set for life, and there will be money left over for Jack to open that restaurant he always dreamed of running. Everyone's happy, right?

The action of The Outgoing Tide follows Peg as she pushes back violently against Gunner's plan, as Jack, who is more than a little ambivalent about his parents, edges over toward his father's point of view. Gunner presses them both, trying to settle matters while he still has the ability to take action. It's a situation with no clear solution and certainly no happy ending. No matter which course is chosen, someone will pay a steep price.

The best thing about The Outgoing Tide is the opportunities it gives three fine actors. Peter Strauss' physically vital Gunner is every inch a tough, scrappy street-smart Philadelphia businessman -- by his own account, he was an especially canny negotiator against the Teamsters -- but he is also visibly terrified about his ebbing mental powers. Talking to Jack, he says, "You were too young to get..." You see the panic rising in his eyes as he searches for the right word, his body tense with agitation, his fingers snapping furiously. When Jack, trying to be helpful, fills in the blank ("Married?"), the gesture only further upsets his father. It's a powerful portrait of one man's helplessness in the face of an implacable ailment.

Michael Learned's Peg is a tart-tongued survivor of decades of marital battle, well-versed in the art of passive-aggressive behavior. (She was forced to surrender her dream of being a schoolteacher when, as a teenager, she got pregnant, a development that forced them down the aisle; as she sees it, Gunner has been getting his way ever since.) Underneath, however, she is deeply devoted to her husband and is unwilling to abrogate the Catholic faith that has supported her for decades; at the same time, she wrestles with a crippling feeling of helplessness as Gunner begins to show increasingly troubling signs of decay -- wandering off, removing his clothes for no reason, and nearly setting the house on fire. Learned is especially deft at handling Peg's conversation-stopping remarks -- for example, her suggestion that Jack got married in his early 20s largely to prove to Gunner that he wasn't gay.

The role of Jack, who, at 50, after years of doing the right thing, is beginning to feel that there is nothing good on his life's horizon, is underwritten to the point that he threatens to become a cipher -- we learn nothing about his occupation or the reasons for the failure of his marriage -- but Ian Lithgow has a way of listening so carefully to the others that you begin to infer all sorts of character shadings that aren't really in the script. In one of the more remarkable passages, he suddenly, wonderingly realizes that, as far as he is concerned, his youngest son is worthless. ("How can I ground him when he never goes out?")

It's especially good news that these three actors are on hand, because The Outgoing Tide, despite its commendable avoidance of the sensational, is a little too tidily arranged for its own good. It is almost immediately clear that Graham is on Gunner's side, and sometimes his partisanship is too plain to see. Never mind that Gunner's plan constitutes insurance fraud, or the wrenching effect it may have on his loved ones. And by setting the dramatic clock so that the decision must be made over a 24-hour period, Graham runs the risk of trivializing this momentous decision and its possible aftereffects. Most damagingly, he is far too eager to conclude the drama on an affirmative note.

There are other falsities, too, associated with the attempt to deal with such an anguish-filled situation in a boulevard-drama format. (I predict that today's reviews will feature a record number of references to On Golden Pond.) Graham tosses in a few largely irrelevant wisecracks -- including two about the pedophile priest scandal -- that suggest an anxiety about lighten things up a bit. A running gag about how Peg scarred Jack's childhood with her predictions of doom never really pays off. More than once, it seems that the author is manipulating Gunner's illness to his own purposes, shuffling him between states of wretched confusion and total awareness as the plot demands.

As a result, The Outgoing Tide, despite some very fine work, never manages the knockout punch it so clearly wants to deliver. But the people in it are true professionals and the production benefits from solid design values. Dirk Durosette's set is a clutter-free cutaway view of Gunner and Peg's house. David O'Connor's sound design includes a repeatedly used and niftily rendered effect of stones skipping across water. Wade Laboissonniere's costumes and James Leitner's lighting are equally fine.

The play ends with one of the characters making the kind of grand gesture that means to combine tears and triumph, but don't be surprised to find your eyes are dry. This outgoing tide takes place in waters that are, dramatically speaking, becalmed.--David Barbour

(20 November 2012)

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