By Ruth Ross
Alzheimer disease appears to be a trending topic, what with two plays about the topic opening, one locally (Old Love New Love at Luna Stage) and the other on Broadway (The Father with Frank Langella), along with a special section about the subject in the May 1, 2016, edition of The New York Times. While many articles and theatrical productions focus on the syndrome's devastating effect on family and friends, the Times article and the current production at Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre in Summit focus on the patient, especially one who is—even intermittently—aware of what is happening to him or her.
Dreamcatcher Rep's New Jersey Premiere of Bruce Graham's The Outgoing Tide actually examines both points-of-view in a well-acted, very affecting production that is as uplifting as it is poignant. Originally performed Off-Broadway in 2012, the play focuses on the Concannon family—the patriarch Gunner, his wife Peg and their son Jack—as they face Gunnar's increasing loss of mental acuity one autumn weekend in their Chesapeake Bay cottage. Aware of what is happening to him, Gunner has concocted a plan to secure his family's financial future, but his wife and son have plans that involve the couple's moving into an assisted living complex with the possibility of hospitalization should Gunner need care that Peg can no longer provide. Faced with his intransigence to this scheme, the three must reach a common decision before the tide goes out—literally and figuratively. With dark humor and powerful emotion, the family takes stock of its options before reaching a moving conclusion.
Under Jack Tamburri's first-rate direction, the action steadily hums along, alternating between present and past through a series of flashbacks that illuminate character and relationships, a plot device that the cast of three pulls off seamlessly and effectively. As Gunner, Roger Rathburn (left, in his Dreamcatcher debut) captures the crustiness of a former teamster, the tenderness of a doting beau and the confusion of a man losing his mental faculties. He may not recognize his son at first, but he has no trouble recalling his wooing of Peg, the girl with Grace Kelly looks. He is a maddening tease, telling his young son tall tales and not above putting the boy in an uncomfortable situation by admonishing him not to tell his mother. Ultimately, Rathburn communicates the desperation of a man determined to hold on to his dignity by maintaining his role of pater familias while going out on his own terms.
Tamburri has matched Rathburn with two equally talented pros. Noreen Farley's Peg (right, with Miceli and Rathburn) is the epitome of the spouse facing the loss of a partner, even before he has left the earth. She lives for her family and is good at caring for them; after 50 years with Gunner and Jack, it's all she knows. Too, there is a sadness about Peg, for her dreams that went unfulfilled when life rudely intruded. Farley plays this indomitable woman with a pathos that never becomes selfish, maudlin or sentimental. As she visibly wrestles with her decision whether or not to support Gunner's plan, we agonize with her over her dilemma.
And as their soon-to-be divorced son Jack, David Miceli (left, with Farley)conveys the confused yearning of a middle-aged man for his father's approval coupled with the realization that he has not been a good parent to his own difficult teenage son Tim. Denigrated by his dad for being more interested in cooking with his mother, he has elected to wall himself off to avoid being hurt. Still uncommunicative and trying not to take sides, Miceli's Jack is heartbreaking as he continues to maintain peace between his parents. His is a controlled but effective portrayal of a man-child having to confront a very difficult situation—and in some ways become the parent, a conundrum confronted by the "sandwich generation" caught between raising children and caring for elderly folks.
Lily Guerin's evocative set transports us to a cabin on the shores of Chesapeake Bay, complete with dock, reeds and a small kitchen table. Zach Pizza's lighting effectively and smoothly directs our attention to the various flashbacks with a minimum of fuss, and the sound design by Jeff Knapp further reinforces the seaside impression, especially the sound of the geese flying south in formation to their winter abode. Costumes by Laura Ekstrand further telegraph to us just who these people are.
The subject of Alzheimer disease is an uncomfortable one that most of us would rather not deal with. Bruce Graham has written a play that manages to be both heartening and heartrending as it focuses not only on the debilitating aspects of the syndrome but also on the dignity of the person affected, especially when he comprehends what is happening to him. Beautifully produced and acted, this sensitive, well-written drama is a welcome addition to the health care discussion, one that many theater-goers may find familiar.
The Outgoing Tide will be performed through May 8 at the Oakes Center, 120 Morris Avenue, Summit. For information and tickets, call 800.838.3006 or visit www.DreamcatcherRep.org online.
Photos by Joey Sbarro