Retiree Gunner (John Mahoney), now living year-round with his wife Peg in their summer home on Chesapeake Bay, seems to have a pretty good quality of life in his golden years. He fishes, boats, and possesses a keen sense of humor, affably striking up conversations with strangers. The trouble is, sometimes those strangers are people he's known all their lives. In Gunner's early stages of Alzheimer's disease, he doesn't always recognize them. On his good days, he's as sharp and alert as anyone. On his not-so-good days, he may try to watch "Cops" on the microwave he mistakes for the TV. His devoted wife Peg (Rondi Reed) has a found a retirement community/assisted living home where they can live together even as the disease progresses, but the thought of living in a facility with hospice care for the dying terrifies Gunner and he has other plans. Gunner's called their middle-aged son Jack (Thomas J. Cox) to the house for a visit during which Gunner reveals his desire to end his life before the Alzheimer's robs him of any more of his faculties.
This world premiere play by Bruce Graham is not so grim as it may seem from the above description, as Gunner is a feisty and funny old man who at this stage of his life feels able to call things exactly as he sees them. In his good moments, we see that Gunner's wit is as sharp and caustic as ever. There's also much reflection on the characters' earlier lives—with Mahoney, Reed and Cox convincingly playing their characters' much younger selves in flashbacks. (JR Lederle's lighting makes those transitions clear and also establishes the various times of day during the action of the play, which all occurs outdoors.) Like other memory plays in which a character reviews their life decisions (Hugh Leonard's A Life, which Mahoney did at Northlight last season, comes to mind), there's a mental settling of scores to be done. Graham, director B.J. Jones and the three-person cast gracefully balance the humor, reflection and moral questions of end of life decisions all while creating three very specific characters that we get to know and care about in some 90 minutes of stage time.
Gunner has some resemblance to the feisty Martin Crane Mahoney played on TV's Frasier, but it's a much deeper character. He has a mean streak, though he's still deeply in love with Peg and loving to Jack, even though Jack was never as tough or masculine a son as Gunner would have liked. In his plan for ending his life, Gunner has complete lucidity and Mahoney shows clearly the tension between an active, sharp mind that is under attack by a disease that has no respect for its innate intelligence. The production's dramaturg Kristen Leahey told a talk-back audience the play was commissioned as a vehicle for Mahoney. The role is a perfect one for him, allowing him to display his trademark crusty humor but also to build on it to create a character of much complexity. Mahoney pulls all the pieces of Gunner together in a way that all his decisions and actions make sense, giving a performance that is less flashy than, but the equal of, his turns in productions like Steppenwolf's The Dresser and The Seafarer.
Rondi Reed plays her first role in Chicago since August: Osage County, giving a beautifully understated interpretation of a character that is the opposite her Mattie Fae in August. Peg is quiet, intelligent and sensitive. Reed gives us a sense of the supporting role Peg must have played for Gunner before his Alzheimer's set in, as well as showing her acceptance of her new and expanding role as caretaker to him. She's especially touching when playing the 17-year-old Peg, learning she's pregnant and putting off her plans for college to marry Gunner. There's a similarly effective and subtle performance from Cox as Jack, who's fragile and with pain of his own over his failed marriage and alienation from his reclusive teenage son, a computer game addict who rarely leaves his room ("How can I ground him when he never goes out," Tom asks).
The resolution of Gunner's proposition to end his own life—which he says he will only do with Peg's approval—seems to come about a little too quickly. Peg and Jack initially react more casually than we might expect to Gunner's announcement, and it seems logical that there would be more tension as the wife and son realize his intentions are not the empty threat of a feeble man. Though Peg is opposed to Gunner's wishes and Jack somewhat ambivalent, Graham stacks the deck in Gunner's favor by showing him to be so lucid in his good moments and developing his character the most fully of the three. Graham doesn't also explore the counter-arguments that supposed symptoms of early disease do not necessarily progress into more serious impairment or that Alzheimer's is not so debilitating as to be a justification for suicide. (Ironically, this alternate view was argued in a May 22nd New York Times editorial by Margaret Morganroth Gullette that ran the day after this show's opening.)
Set against a realistic representation of a waterfront gray clapboard house by set designer Brian Sidney Bembridge, and with sound effects by Andrew Hansen suggesting the water in which the audience is presumably sitting, this production is strong enough for a Broadway transfer. It's entertaining and thoughtful, with three great roles that would be catnip for any number of actors, though it would be hard to picture anyone doing a better job than Mahoney, Reed and Cox.
The Outgoing Tide will play through June 19, 2011 at Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, IL. Tickets are available through the box office, by phone at 847-673-6300 or online at www.northlight.org.
Photo: Thomas J. Cox, John Mahoney and
Rondi Reed (by: Michael Brosilow)
Column Courtesy TalkinBroadway.com. Reprinted with permission.